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.

OT Lectionary Apr 5th Easter Sunday Isaiah 25:6-9

 Reflections on the oft-neglected OT lectionary passages

Those among my dear readers who have undergone any academic training will probably have had to answer this essay question: ‘1 Corinthians 15:4 states that Christ “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. Which scriptures, exactly?’

This is an interesting question: Paul, along with our liturgical creeds, clearly saw the resurrection as have been predicted in some way in the OT, although it is not easy to see exactly where. So our solitary OT lectionary passage for Easter Day (not counting the Psalm, of course) doesn’t directly address the resurrection per se, but it does talk in symbolic language about what some of the results of resurrection might be, whether or not it directly expected the physical resurrection from death of an individual.

It’s worth noting first that Isaiah’s scene is played out on a mountain, while Jesus is crucified on Skull Hill. In the OT mountains are often places of encounter with God, and most clearly the place of law. The cross becomes the place where earth and heaven meet, but the place of law becomes the place of grace.

Isaiah begins here, as he so often does, with food. Whatever event he is looking towards, it is set around a laden table, with people celebrating joyfully with the finest of fare, something of a contrast with the austerity of the Last Supper. It is also a feast open, he tells us, to all peoples. The resurrection of Jesus, our lectionary compilers are clearly trying to tell us, is for celebration and nourishment, and all are welcome, not just ‘PLU’s (People Like Us).

While the people feast a ‘shroud’ is removed from them. This might refer to the shroud of death which, like taxes, is inevitable for all, or it might be an introductory phrase which is spelt out in the next few verses as he promises the defeat of death, misery and disgrace, negative elements as much of a threat to all of us today as they were in Isaiah’s time and ever since. The resurrection of Jesus promises us not just freedom from the sting and fear of death, but also the possibility of forgiveness for the shamefaced, healing for the sick and joy for the downcast.

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Isaiah ends by noting that whatever it is that God is doing, it has been long-awaited. It shows the other side of the coin from all those desperate ‘How long?’ cries which ring through the OT and down the ages. For so long, it seems, God has chosen, for whatever reasons, not, apparently, to do very much. But now he has stirred himself: he is on the move, his purposes are being worked out, and his salvation is there for the asking.

Our response to all this? As it will be on Easter Sunday in our churches, rejoicing is the only appropriate way to celebrate this mighty act of God.

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.

Old Testament Lectionary December 14th Advent 3 Isaiah 61:1-11

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit confused about Advent themes. In the good old days it was all about death, judgement, heaven and hell, but there’s also that stuff about prophets, patriarchs and the rest. The ASB helpfully gave us weekly themes, and Bible Sunday used to be around here somewhere too, but then in reaction to the ASB themes Common Worship is a bit shy and prefers us to see what we hear as we meditate on the readings, rather than telling us what we’ve got to find in them. Confused …? However, from the gospel for today we’re apparently supposed to be thinking about John the Baptist, so what does Isaiah have to say about that?

 

The first thing which strikes one is the similarity of this passage to the ‘Servant Songs’ from the middle chapters of the book. The Spirit of God had anointed someone or other (discuss!) to bring redemption to Israel through sacrificial suffering. Indeed the nation had suffered in exile, but now they are back in their homeland and have the task of rebuilding not just the physical city but also the national life. So now a new ‘servant’ is being called and anointed, like the previous one unidentified, but probably in this case the prophet himself. His message is one of hope, new life, restoration and redemption, and he speaks to a people whom one might imagine literally standing in the ruins of the city, among the broken and scattered stones of the once great buildings, hearing his good news of a new start. It’s not difficult to see how the ministry of John was foreshadowed in this passage.

 

But what is interesting is the hints we get here about the foundations of this renewed community. In v 8 we get a glimpse of God’s values, the things which are important to him: he loves justice, and he hates robbery and wrongdoing. And then again in v 11 God promises to make righteousness and praise spring up. This, I think, helps us to deal with the question prompted by all the lovely stuff in this chapter ‘Well where is it then?’ The ongoing history of Israel after the return from exile was anything but as rosy as this text paints it. We’re still waiting today for the glorious future of Israel as they fight within their own land and as a mosque occupies pride of place in Jerusalem.

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Righteousness and praise, robbery and wrongdoing. We know clearly what God likes and doesn’t like, but, as with the people in the time of John the Baptist, we have a choice as to how we live. Choose the right things and we choose life, hope and a future. Choose the other way, and there is no certainly of God’s best will becoming reality. God never forces his blessings on us, and the story of the Bible as a whole is the story of God’s plans for blessing and prosperity being thwarted again and again by twisted human rebellion. There is hope, there is a future, but as a human race we need to hear again, more urgently than ever, John’s cry to repent.

OT Lectionary 9th Feb Lent -4 Isaiah 58:1-12

What’s in it for me?

Of course, now that we’re in Ordinary Time most of my dear readers will be taking the opportunity legally to construct their own teaching series (as suggested in my How to … Preach Strategically Grove Worship Series W211. http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/cart.php?target=product&product_id=17550&substring= ) But for those sticking to the lectionary, here’s some thoughts on the OT reading for next Sunday.

We’re four Sundays away from Lent, but this passage from Is 58 has a distinctly Lenten feel to it, with its talk of fasting and practical good works. As in much of this section of Isaiah there is a feel of post-exile ennui: we’ve been through the tough times, God miraculously rescued us, but now what? Life is no longer lived in a foreign land, under oppressive rulers, that ‘wartime spirit’ is no longer necessary, thank God, but yet we still somehow miss it. So what are we supposed to be doing with ourselves?

What we see behind these words is a bunch of people who have turned to religion. They seem to be doing the kinds of things which they believe God likes, fasting and praying, for example. But they nevertheless sense his absence. We’ve done the right stuff, but you just haven’t noticed, O Lord.

God’s immediate response, through the prophet, is to call them ‘rebellious’. Yes, they are going through the motions, but there is no depth, and no practical care either for one another or for the poor and oppressed people who have presumably escaped Babylonian exile only to live as slaves in their own land. The prophet lists some practical things the people ought to be doing (v 6-10a), and the results in terms of God’s blessing if they do start living better. The images of blessing are strangely both rural and urban: flourishing in a desert land, but also rebuilding streets and houses from the ruins of desolation.

I am struck once again by the unashamed appeal of the Bible to reward as a motivator for good works. Protestant Christianity doesn’t find this easy: paradoxically Ignatius Loyola is our hero:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost;

to fight and not to heed the wounds;

to toil and not to seek for rest;

to labour and not to ask for any reward,

save that of knowing that we do your will.

Yet the Bible is full of promises of reward for those who obey God wholeheartedly, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount, which uses the word ‘reward’ nine times. As we approach Lent it is easy to begin planning how we might make our lives just a little bit more miserable for a few weeks, but true fasting, according to Isaiah, is both practical in its care for others and unashamedly keen on getting something for ourselves out of it. So now might not be a bad time to begin thinking about what we’re hoping for this Lent, and how we might go about living and praying in order to get it.

OT Lectionary Epiphany 2 Isaiah 49:1-7

This week our OT passage is the second of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’, and as we continue in our gospel readings to explore the blossoming of Jesus’ ministry we can see how we can be illuminated by these words, just as no doubt he himself was as he launched himself into the public arena. Like all four servant songs this one is addressed to the nation of Israel, but was to find its perfect fulfilment in the Messiah, the one who fully grasped the Father’s purposes and was completely and sinlessly obedient to his will. So as we seek to co-operate with God in our own sanctification and the renewal of all creation, what might these words have to say to us?

I think there is in this passage something about our calling, something about our task, and something about how we respond to the previous two. Our calling ( v 1-3) is first of all from God himself. It is not an afterthought, or a spur-of-the-moment good idea: indeed it predates our very existence. Not only did God call us, but he has been preparing us, hidden away out of public view. He has been shaping us, sharpening us up, getting us ready. In these days of political correctness it is interesting to note the image of ourselves as God’s weapons: as swords getting sharpened for battle, as arrows polished to fly true. For now the sword is sheathed and the arrows tucked safely into his quiver, but they are ready for the fight when the time comes. I’ve no idea whether or not a sword can tell that it is being sharpened: I rather suspect not. In the same way we may have only the haziest idea of how exactly God has been preparing us for battle, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been.

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So what are we for? The warfare imagery is dropped as we discover what exactly our calling is, and Isaiah is pleased to tell us that God has a lot more in store for us than we might have thought (v 5-7). There is something about bringing his people back to him, out of exile, apostasy, sin and separation. But if you think that’s it, says God through the prophet, you’re thinking far too small. This isn’t just about Israel, my chosen people. It’s about all people everywhere, to the very ends of the earth. When I was a curate in a huge church in the north of England, my boss used to say that our purpose wasn’t to fill the church with believers: in fact we did that four times every Sunday. Rather it was to empty the parish of unbelievers, an altogether more daunting task. Our job as followers of Jesus, as he himself made clear through several of his parables, is not about tinkering with the church: it’s about winning the world.

So, as a therapist might say, how do you feel about that? Possibly the same as the prophet’s Israel (v 4). That’s OK for you to say, but why isn’t it happening? This is the cry of overworked and discouraged Christian workers everywhere (or at least the honest ones). I’ve worked my socks off but where is it? Where are the results for all my years of labour? The church continues to decline, if we’re honest we’ve seen very few people finding faith, and neither have we done all that much to make our patch a better one to live in. Why should we bother? Recognise that?

God holds out a challenge to those of us who feel something of the despair of v 4. Maybe we’ve been concentrating on too small a task. Maybe we’ve let our ministry in the church rob us of our ministry to the world. But he also holds out a promise: the ultimate victory of his purposes, as kings and princes come to acknowledge the God in whose name we labour. It may seem a long way off, but hold on: it will surely come!

Dec 22nd Advent 4 Isaiah 7:10-17

Christmas and Easter are par excellence the times when OT ‘scriptures’ are invoked as prophecies about the circumstances of the life of Jesus, thus proving that God knew all along what he was going to do, and felt the need to give little hints to people which one day long in the future they (or rather their great great great … grandchildren) would suddenly ‘get’ when they saw Jesus. I blame Handel’s Messiah, which is full of the stuff, and makes it impossible for us to hear certain Bible passages without running the danger of bursting into song. Especially that ‘wonderful counsellor’ one. I once got myself into trouble speaking to a group of trainees at one of these youth gap year projects by daring to suggest that Is 7 isn’t actually a prophecy about the virgin birth, but might have had a relevance to the people to whom it was actually spoken. In context it is about God saying to king Ahaz, who feared a united attack from two enemy kings, that God knew exactly what was going on, had his hand on the situation, and was planning to do something about it. ‘But when?’ the king might have cried, knowing as we do that God’s next-on-the-list might take up to a thousand years. So God reassured him: this young girl you’re planning to marry and have a child with? Well before he’s a couple of years old these two kings will have been destroyed. It’s a message of deliverance, of hope, of assurance that God really is in control.

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And that, it seems to me, is the real point of this passage, and of its use just before Christmas. Apart from in Matthew 1:23 Jesus never once does get called ‘Immanuel’ , although we know that in a real sense he was ‘God with us’. Whether Is 7 does ‘prove’ the virgin birth or not I’ll leave you to decide. I have no trouble believing that a virgin could conceive, but a lot more in believing that this verse has very much at all to do with it. But Advent and Christmas are all about a God who knows, who cares, and who eventually will act. If we feel under siege, God knows. If we worry about what the world is coming to, we can be assured that God is in control and nothing humans can do will faze him. And if we despair of ever seeing change, God reassures us that the time is coming when he will act. So the message to us as Advent gives way to Christmas is to hold on, to stay hopeful, and to wait faithfully. And God, after all, is with us.