OT Lectionary July 12th Trinity 6 Amos 7:7-15

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

We may not often shoot messengers nowadays, but we very often want to silence them. ‘The first responsibility of a leader i s to define reality’ according to American businessman Max de Pree, but sometimes communities just don’t want reality defined. They prefer the status quo, however sick it might be. It appears that Amos’ vision of the plumbline is the last straw which causes Amaziah, the priest of the sanctuary at Bethel, to report him to the king and to try to put an end to his prophetic ministry, at least around here.

What is so offensive about a plumbline? The vision begins with God standing next to a wall which has been built correctly, and warning Amos that he is about to test the nation of Israel by the same standard. The implication is that it will found to be out of true. We already know that – every paragraph of the book so far says the same thing, in different ways.File:Fil à plomb.jpg

But the big question is this: what do you do with a wall which you discover is out of true? I’m no bricklayer, but my guess is that it’s pretty hard to straighten it out, particularly once the cement has set. I suspect that tweaking bricks is an impossible task. The only possibility is a drastic one: demolish the whole thing and build it again properly. So Amos’ prophecy against Israel isn’t just a warning of judgement: it’s a warning of total destruction. God spells this out: both the sanctuaries for worship and the reigning family of Jeroboam will be spared no longer.

Various tactics are used against Amos, as they continue to be today against any leaders who try to bring unpalatable truths to the powerful stakeholders in the community. They misunderstand him: in v 12 they assume he is merely doing this for a living, failing to see the call of God burning within his guts. They dob on him to the king like schoolkids who have fallen out in v 10, and they try to bully him with the threat of the king’s anger behind them (v 13). And they simply tell him to go away and leave them alone (v 12). I, and others who have been bullied during the course of Christian ministry, will know these tactics only too well.

But Amos has a higher calling than local politics. In the only bit of biography we have in this book, he explains that he was just a working man, but when the call of God to a prophetic ministry hits you, you have no choice but to obey, whatever the cost. When God speaks, you simply can’t disobey, any more than you can fail to be afraid when a lion roars in your ear (3:8).

The other interesting thing about this passage is that it merely the third of three oracles of judgement in this chapter. In the previous two God’s threats of locust and fire are met with intercession by Amos, which causes God to relent and allow more time. But the third time there is neither intercession nor mercy. It appears that it is possible to exhaust the patience of God. How close we are to that in our nation no-one knows, but in the meantime our prophetic calling as God’s people continues to be one of announcement and intercession. ‘Who knows: God may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing’ (Joel 2:18).

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 18th Ash Wednesday Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

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

An extra for you this week for the occasion of Ash Wednesday. I’ve chose to comment on the Joel passage as I like it better!

One of my big beefs with the way in which we so often use the OT is about reading it as though the only purpose it had was to prophesy stuff about Jesus, or to provide spiritualised insights for 21st century Christians. This passage reminds us that these words were first addressed to real people, with a real relationship with God, but in a very different time and culture. People with a real and pressing crisis to face. The first rule of hermeneutics, or interpreting Scripture, is that

‘a passage can’t mean anything which the original writers didn’t mean the original readers to understand by it’.

So what was going on back in Joel’s day? We know from the context that the nation had been subject to a massive attack by locusts. If you’ve seen this happening on David Attenborough-type programmes you’ll know the devastation which these little creatures can cause, but what we don’t often realise is that it is much more serious than that. All the crops being stripped doesn’t just mean no food: it also means no seed to plant for next year. This isn’t just a tricky situation for a while: it could literally mean the death of the nation. What are people to do?

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The prophet knows very well what they should do: they should repent. He clearly sees this devastating plague as a divine punishment, or at the very least a removal of divine protection. So in the strongest terms, this book is a call to deep, heart-rending repentance, at a national level.

Nowadays, of course, we don’t really have big disasters like that, at least not in the developed world. If we did get attacked by locusts we’d probably spray them with something or other and it would all be OK. And the idea that a prophet could get the nation to do anything at all is laughable.

So we do our repentance a bit differently. It’s all about me and God, my bad temper, the fact that I let out a rude word when I hit my finger with a hammer, and those days I missed reading my morning Bible passage. Not earth-shattering sins, but it’s good to have a little clean out once in a while, isn’t it, and Lent seems a good time to do it and to try harder to be nice.

I can’t help but contrast the way we think of Lent with the gut-wrenching desperation of Joel, crying out to God for their very survival. I can’t remember the last time I heard a priest weeping with penitence during public worship, or such a commitment to intercession that it even takes precedence over food and sex. I wonder whether the personalised and individualised observance of Lent which is the stock-in-trade of the C of E is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs while the ship of state that is contemporary Britain is sinking before our very eyes.

OT Lectionary 30th November Advent Sunday Isaiah 64:1-9

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

In the past one of my fave worship-songs was Graham Kendrick’s Restore, O Lord. It was a call for God to get up and do something, so that people would recognise his power and sovereignty as he shook the earth again, and come to him in reverent fear. This passage his a similar feel to it, although when we look more deeply there are several inconsistencies which draw our attention. So as always, let’s look at the wider context.

Isaiah 63:7 to 64:12 is a psalm of corporate lament. People are beginning to return from Babylon to Jerusalem, but the with exhilaration of freedom comes a sense of a daunting task of rebuilding, and the fact that actually we are never going to be able simply to turn back time. Sadder and wiser, the people are aware that the experience of exile has scarred them and dented their relationship with God. This psalm celebrates the glorious past when God did intervene in their lives, calls upon him to do it again, but also blames him for his absence.

So our passage begins with a cry for God to manifest his power so that his enemies will see and be very afraid. But the enemies quickly become ‘us’ – indeed ‘all of us’ is a repeated refrain which loses the prominence in English which it has in the Hebrew. Whilst there is an acknowledgement that the nation has sinned, there is an apparent excuse for this: God has hidden himself from them and left them to it (v 7). Like an adulterous husband who blames his wife’s lack of attention for his own playing away from home, Israel claims that it is God’s ignoring of them which has left them no option but to sin. No-one bothers to call on God because he has deliberately turned away from them, so what’s the point?

And yet this blaming of God is bracketed between two examples of the people doing exactly what they claim no-one does: calling on him. In v 1-2 there is a desperate cry for his attention, and in v 9 there is a call for him to put aside his anger and ‘look upon’ his people. What are we to make of all this?

It’s worth noting first that lament is not always logical. When we’re upset and pour out our hearts to God, we don’t always do it with faultless logic or sound theology. God, and the Bible, seem big enough to understand and take it. But it is also interesting to ask some questions about who exactly are the players in this little drama. Just who are ‘we’? I wonder whether a prophetic picture from my past might be apposite.

I had recently been appointed by a bishop to turn around a church which he perceived as being in need of the gospel and the Spirit. Fairly early in, and experiencing some stiff resistance, I found myself pondering the famous Laodicea passage in Revelation 3. In my head I heard God asking me ‘How many people does it need to get up from the table and open the door when Jesus knocks?’ The obvious answer is ‘Just the one’. If the doorbell rings during a dinner party, it is not normal for the entire company to get up to go and answer it. In the same way I felt that for Jesus to have greater access to the life of the church, it didn’t really matter that not everyone was keen on the idea. As long as there was someone to welcome him in, that would do. That little conversation became formative for our prayers over the next few years, and we did indeed see significant renewal and a far more central place for Jesus.

I wonder if there is something similar in play here? Maybe the ‘we’ crying out so desperately in verses 1-2 and 9 is a just a subset of the ‘we’ who have sinned so grievously. It is, of course, biblical bad form to pray about ‘them’ from the lofty moral high ground: great intercessors always identify with the sinful community even if they personally haven’t been involved[1]. When I pray for the church which I belong to, love deeply, but hate for its weakness, sin and compromise; when I cry to God for his earth-shaking presence to be felt once again, I need to remember that ‘I’ am included in the ‘we’.

[1] See for example Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9 about how ‘we’ have intermarried. In the next chapter there is a list of the guilty parties, a list from which Ezra’s name is gloriously absent.

What’s Church for? Church as Army

A weekly series exploring how church has changed in its self-understanding.

Last time I recalled the church of the 70s in which I grew up as a teenager, and our rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ. But things moved on in the 80s, with two major developments in our life and style. In many ways I look back on this period with great nostalgia, but also with a more critical eye and the benefit of hindsight.

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The first is that the predominant model of church moved from ‘Body’ to ‘Army’. The songs we were singing in my bit of the church were unashamedly songs of warfare and victory, about trampling down the Enemy (who was an intensely real figure for us), and above all about the coming revival. Books about past revivals were consumed avidly, and the great cry was ‘Lord, do it again!’ This was long before the church had heard of political correctness, and if as the Body we were a bit hazy on actually ‘why?’ we were very clear now: we were the army destined by God to bring in the great revival which would usher in the last days. Intercession was rich, fervent and faith-filled, and worship songs were loud and triumphant. The mood of victory was palpable, and this was a spirituality which particularly appealed to young people and men, in contrast to the slightly feminine Body stuff. This was about power and action, not intimacy and ‘sharing’.

A new twist came in the mid-80s with the visit of John Wimber from Anaheim, California, with his message of ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’. It isn’t enough, John maintained, just to tell people about God: we should be showing people God in action, through miracles, healing and deliverance. He then taught us in great detail just how we should pray for the sick, and undergirded it all with some very solid theology of the Kingdom of God. To the powerful intercession and warlike worship was added the possibility of real action, as people learnt to pray for the sick and to expect miracles. Paradoxically the worship-songs went entirely in the opposite direction, and became slow, gentle, some would say ‘boring’, and all about intimacy with God and nothing more.

These were heady days, and as far as church was concerned we had a very clear idea of what we were about. Inevitably with hindsight we were a bit disappointed as the promised miracles didn’t materialise in the quantities we had hoped for, as the revival failed to happen, and as the advent of PCness made us all feel just slightly guilty about the militaristic language of our songs and sermons. John Wimber’s theology, so convincing at the time, began to be open to question in one or two of its tenets (does the NT really teach that all Christians should be miracle-workers, or is the Apostles who pray for healing most of the time?). And while the Vineyard churches, which grew and developed in the UK as a result of John’s ministry, were very keen on ministry to the poor, it tended to be on an individual basis rather than any great struggle against unjust structures.

Personally I think we had a lot going for us in those days, and the loss of so-called ‘militaristic’ language, a theme to which I shall be returning, is a tragic loss to the church and its mission. Naive we almost certainly were, and I wonder whether the prayer God really enjoys is not ‘Lord, do it again!’ but rather ‘Lord, so something new!’. But as we moved into the 90s there was to be a major new twist.