OT Lectionary Aug 30th Trinity 13 Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

I wonder if you were a space alien from the planet Tharg and you landed by mistake in Britain, whether your first and instinctive reaction would be to exclaim ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ Our passage today, along with the Gospel from Mark 7, is about the Law, and I have already discussed elsewhere what place the Law has in the lives of Christians who have been saved by grace. We concluded that the Law is meant to be a delight to God’s people, not because it restricts them but because it points the way to life and wisdom, the kind of savoir faire which helps us to live effectively. But today’s passage reminds us that this is not just an individual characteristic but a corporate one as well.

There is a common motif in the OT about the surrounding nations observing Israel and seeing them as wise and effective, and acknowledging that their god is indeed a good one. This thought lies at the heart of this passage: in v 7-8 the repeated cry of ‘what other great nation?’ displays the awe with which those outside Israel regard their national life. Would that that were true of 21st century Britain!

The Law is hallmarked by wisdom and justice. It is not to be tampered with according to personal taste, it needs guarding jealously and living out zealously, and above all it needs passing on to generations yet to come. Proverbs 24:34 tells us that ‘righteousness exalts a nation’, and it is clearly meant to exalt the nation in the eyes of other nations, so that they may see both the presence of God among us, and the goodness of that God.

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But this is not just a nice idea. Our lectionary compilers have again filleted out the more awkward verses from v 3-5, but to reinsert them reminds us that actually this is a matter of life and death. We don’t just keep the Law so that we’ll look good, but that we may live. To ignore it is to dice with death – literally. Whether that is the quick death of idolators punished by God, or the long, slow death of a nation in moral decline, it is equally inevitable.

It is worth reminding ourselves, though, of the place of the whole book of Deuteronomy, which purports to be Moses’ final instructions as the nation enters a new phase, having left behind slavery and wandering. Now they are to become more of a settled nation, it is good to get the foundations in place as the new phase of life begins. In the final verse Moses urges the people to keep careful watch on themselves lest what he is telling them fades from memory. If you want to see what happens to nations which may be built on good foundations but which have lost the plot over the years, you have only to watch the news. This passage calls forth intercession from me, that God would have mercy on a nation well down the road of disobedience and decay.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Micah

Micah was an approximate contemporary of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Amos and Hosea, in the 8th Century and the lead up to the Babylonian exile. We have already seen how different prophets, facing the same situation, felt very differently about the root cause of the issues God was calling them to address. We saw Hosea complaining about unfaithfulness and lack of love for God, while Amos concentrated more on social injustice. Micah gives us a third take on this period, although his words are more in line with those of Amos. Like all the prophets of this period he warns people about coming judgement, and blames their deliberate and planned oppression of one another. National leaders and false prophets, who say what the people want to hear rather than bringing challenge to them, are equally condemned. Religion is comfortable, big business, and deeply compromised and therefore abusive.

 

But of his contemporaries Micah is perhaps the prophet most clearly able to see beyond tragedy and punishment to redemption and new hope. He has quite a lot more carrot than stick. He talks about ‘the last days’ (4:1 etc) when the Temple, set on the mountain of the Lord, will become a centre of worship and truth, not just for Israel but for many nations. As people gather to meet with the true God, so his teaching will go out, and warfare and conflict will be replaced with peace and prosperity. The poor will become rich, the sick healthy, the weak and grieving nation will, paradoxically, become mighty warriors.

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In chapter 5 this future vision becomes even clearer, as a new ruler for Israel is prophesied, who will come from the insignificant village of Bethlehem. Whether or not this is to be read as a clear prophecy about Jesus the coming Messiah, two things are significant: Bethlehem’s background as the place from which David, Israel’s greatest king, hailed, and the fact that it is the back of beyond as far as prestige and power are concerned. I wonder if we are meant to see a contrast between the current regime of powerful and oppressive religious leaders, based at the ‘cathedral’ of the Jerusalem Temple, and the future leader whose background is insignificant and who will shepherd the people rather than oppressing them.

 

The last word comes from the other purple passage of this book, 6:6-8, which sets out what the people have to do in order to please God: act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. These kinds of behaviour and mindset are worth for more to God than extravagant sacrifices. The universal picture of salvation is reprised in the final paragraphs with a picture of the warlike nations who have oppressed Israel crawling out of their dens to find forgiveness and true faith in God.

 

Micah’s work delicately balances warning and hope, judgement and restoration, and Israel and the rest of the nations. It warns us of the dangers both of oppressive religious systems, injustice to others, and a belligerent attitude to the world around. God’s salvation is for all, even people ‘not like us’. It encourages us to righteous living and reverent worship.

Image: “A cross in the sky of Bethlehem (8316854980)” by Lux Moundi – A cross in the sky of Bethlehem. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Amos

And now for something completely different. Hosea whom we looked at two weeks ago was an 8th century prophet who warned people that because of their lack of love for God and their prostitution of their faith through adulterous relationships with other gods they would go into exile. Then we saw Joel, who is not easy to date, believing that a plague of locusts heralded the start of God’s apocalyptic judgement, which might, however, be held back by deep penitence for sin. Now we come to Amos, a slightly earlier contemporary of Hosea, also ministering in the North, also predicting  judgement, but for very different reasons.

His message, and his style, were aimed at people who were basically complacent and self-satisfied. It wasn’t that they were bad at loving God, but that they were dreadful at loving their neighbours.

He begins to tickle their complacency by a cook’s tour of the surrounding nations, each of which is roundly condemned for some area of sin. You can just hear the applause after each nation is mentioned, as self-righteousness and xenophobia combine to make the people feel better and better. The penultimate straw is his condemnation of Judah, their despised brothers to the South: this would really have raised the roof. But then the hammer drops as in 2:6 Israel itself get exactly the same treatment. Not only does this condemn them for their sins, but also it tells them that they are no better than all these hated foreigners in God’s sight. All alike are ripe for punishment.

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The sins of Israel, though, are not about their lack of devotion to God. Indeed their worship and music are exemplary (5:21-24). It’s just that it is so much hot air, and does not show itself in care and concern for the poor, needy and broken of society. Their worship really is the Tory Party at Prayer, while the humble poor are neglected. The rich get richer, and enjoy a life of ease, while the poor are further beaten into the dust. And no-one even seems to care, or even to notice.

It isn’t that God hasn’t tried to get their attention. In chapter 4 there is a list of disasters which have overtaken the nation: famine, drought, pests and plagues, warfare and destruction. But the refrain after each disaster is the same: ‘Yet you have not returned to me!’.

The Israelites could have done with being Anglicans. Merely to say to God ‘We do not presume …’ might have freed them from annihilation. But they would not, and their self-righteousness continued. Amaziah the shrine priest tried to send Amos back down South to do his preaching there (7:10ff) but he knew his calling, and he had no choice but to obey. His message was that those who longed for the Day of the Lord, that time would God would come and vent his wrath on all the foreigners, would be the day they too were on the receiving end of it.

I need not labour the parallels with our own age, with its injustice, inequality and violence. But as we’ll see next time, to do nothing is simply not enough. How tragic if the British Church heard God say ‘yet you have not returned to me’.

Image: By Jim Linwood [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s just not fair! An Easter special

Due to circumstances in our lives we haven’t really been able to enter into the whole Lent thing with any great enthusiasm this year, but I did enjoy going as is our custom to Canterbury Cathedral for the Palm Sunday Eucharist, which included the singing of the whole Passion Narrative according to Matthew. We’re so used to hearing Scripture in little bits that it can have real impact from time to time to listen to a much larger chunk: like standing back from a view you can see some very different things. As I heard again the familiar story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution I was struck very strongly by one thought: it’s just not fair!

Now maybe I particularly heard that this year because I’m still recovering from a period where I felt misunderstood, bullied and persecuted, or because I’ve had cancer, but this sense of injustice, the unfairness of it all is what I’ll take home from Easter this year. Maybe there are things in your life, too, which just don’t feel fair. Maybe Jesus can help.

 

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First of all, this whole sorry mess occurs because Jesus is misunderstood. He has come from God to save the world, for goodness’ sake, but instead he is hounded by the very people he has come to do good to. They see him as a threat to their status quo, which of course he is, but only because they are so blind that they can’t see what he is really about. When people don’t get what we’re trying to do, especially when we’re trying to help them, and try to portray us as villains, it can really hurt. Jesus has had this sense of being misunderstood and therefore opposed for three years now, and I guess it must have got a bit wearing.

Of course his Father didn’t help. Why wouldn’t he take this cup away and find some other method for the salvation of the human race? All that agonised prayer didn’t change a thing. That can’t have seemed fair either.

Jesus’ arrest demonstrated their misunderstanding even further. Did the one who had healed the sick and welcomed children really need swords and clubs, and did those who were with him need to try to fight back with the same weapons? ‘What have I been trying to teach them for three years?’ Jesus must have wondered. ‘Have they grasped anything of what I’m about?’

Then to be betrayed and denied can’t have helped. These were his friends, those who ought to have been for him, but in the end sheer cowardice turned them against him, not because he had done anything to harm them, but because they were just too weak. That hurts too: that just isn’t fair.

The trial is of course a travesty, and when the legal process becomes unfair there is something seriously wrong. And would the crowds really want to choose a murderer in preference to the Prince of Life? Maybe, or maybe not, but the authorities soon stirred them up: it isn’t hard to work a crowd if you know what you’re doing.

But maybe the final cut must have been to be accused of blasphemy when you’re actually telling nothing but the truth. Of all the manifestations of unfairness, this must take the biscuit.

So how do we react when life is unfair, when others misunderstand or persecute us; when they call evil what we are trying to do for good? I see in Jesus a total lack of any surprise at all this injustice, no attempt at all at self-justification or point-scoring, no apparent self-pity or even anger. He knows, as we do, that he is after all the master of his own destiny, having chosen to accept his Father’s will. He believes that he will be vindicated, and he seems content to let people rant on all around him while he retains a quiet dignity. Now that is one area where I could do with being a bit more Christlike.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.