A sermon preached at St Swithin’s Lincoln on April 7th 2019
Chill the champagne for when you’ve read this: we’ve done the OT! Sadly it’s downhill from here on as we tackle what my OT tutor at college used to call ‘The Appendix’. But first, what about Malachi? His name means ‘My messenger’ and it may be that 3:1, rather than being a prediction of John the Baptist, he sees himself in this role. He provides the final warning before the God whom the people say they want to meet actually turns up, but with judgement.
The OT ends with a whimper, not a bang, as Malachi, who appears to have ministered after Haggai and Zechariah, paints a picture of a nation in the doldrums. The building work may have been completed, but the hearts of the people and their leaders alike are far from God. In a series of condemning paragraphs the prophet challenges the people because they are casting doubt on God’s love for them, offering blemished sacrifices, getting divorced, dealing unjustly, holding back tithes, and speaking arrogantly about God. The priests particularly are condemned for their slipshod ministry and lack of reverence. It is a hugely disappointing picture after the high hopes for renewal expressed by earlier prophets. Has the nation really come to this?
The purple passage, much loved by Diocesan Stewardship Advisors, is the bit about tithing in chapter 3, but this particular failing has to be set in the bigger context of a nation whose hearts are far from God and whose behaviour shows it clearly. It isn’t surprising that money, which Jesus clearly warned us about as a rival god, is just one symptom of a deeply sick society, as it often is of a deeply sick church.
And yet this book is not one of blanket condemnation with no hope: there are clear pointers to courses of action which will bring health and renewal. Fear God’s name (1:14), teach knowledge (2:7), stay faithful in marriage (2:16), tithe properly: all these are ways out of this mess the nation is in. Common sense really: God has identified exactly what you are doing wrong, so just stop it!
But human effort alone is not going to save things. The other famous passage is 3:1-4, seen as having been fulfilled in John the Baptist and Jesus. After a herald proclaiming his coming, the Messiah will come to purify the nation’s leaders in a process described in terms of metal refining, where impurities are burnt up leaving only the precious metal. Those who are faithful to God (3:16ff) will be loved and treasured by him, while those who are not are ripe for a good burning. A key, and very challenging verse, is 3:18: ‘You will see again the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’ The OT ends with a reminder that there is a black and white distinction between God’s people and those who are not, a theme which continues through the teaching of Jesus but with which we are most uncomfortable nowadays. Our job meanwhile, like that of all the prophets, is to call people to a knowledge and a recognition of who God is, what he demands of us, and how we may be purified to live and worship in holiness.
A contemporary of Haggai, prophesying during the reign of Persian king Darius over Israel, Zechariah ministered after the exile as the national life was being restored. His book falls into two halves. In chapters 1-8 he is urging the people to complete the rebuilding of the Temple, but while Haggai uses logic to persuade the people that it will be good for them if they get on with it and receive God’s blessing once again, Zechariah uses a series of somewhat strange visions to the same end. This is much more right-brain stuff than the cold logic of Haggai, but what shines through it is God’s desire to bless his people.
The nature of the second half of the book is much more like your trad prophetic oracle, predicting the downfall and judgement of Israel’s enemies and the coming of God to be among the people.
The language, certainly of the first half of the book, is apocalyptic, which we first discovered in the book of Daniel. The weird visions, the angelic guides who interpret for him, the number symbolism: all this set this book firmly in the apocalyptic tradition. It is therefore uncertain as to the exact chronology of the fulfilment of these oracles, but has been interpreted as a messianic text. Certainly there is much which could be seen to link to the life of Jesus: the passage about mourning in 12:10ff, the thirty pieces of silver and the potter in 11:12ff, the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the flock in 13:7ff. Those writing up the events of Jesus’ life and death had plenty of language here with which to tell their story.
The key point here is the universal reign of God and his final victory. The foreign nations will either be destroyed or will come to worship the one true God. Whilst the book bristles with interpretational problems, which we simply can’t do justice to here, the message is clear: God will reign, so live in ways which will honour and obey him. But these images of a conquering king are interspersed with the imagery of shepherding a vulnerable flock with care and compassion. As such the book reveals the paradox of our God as a caring pastor and a fearless leader.
It raises the question of which version of God we prefer. Currently the fashion seems to be for a ‘nice’ God who is politically correct, who loves us ‘unconditionally’ (where can you find that in the Bible?), and above all who, like all good postmodern people, is tolerant. In past ages God was much more of a warrior, but that idea is well out of fashion now. Zechariah holds out to us a vision of both, and calls us to hold the two in tension. But one thing is certain: his ultimate victory for those who are his people.
Zephaniah was an approximate contemporary of Jeremiah, prophesying not long before Judah was exiled to Babylon, but in many ways his book has similarities with Amos. it is about the univ3ersal judgement of god, not just on those who are his ‘chosen people’, but on all the nations. The Philistines (2:4-7), Moab and Ammon (2:8-11), Egypt (2:12) and Assyria, who had overrun the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2:13-15) are all to get their come-uppance from God as he executes his judgement on people. Some of the nations’ crimes are spelled out: Moab and Ammon have insulted God’s people, always a dangerous thing to do, and Assyria have been presumptuous and complacent. We’re not told what Egypt or Philistia have done, although we know that they have both at different times oppressed God’s people.
But the plot thickens: in 3:6 we are told that God has already wreaked destruction on other nations. He expected that Judah would see this and make the connection with her own sin. Seeing the anger of God expressed on others ought to have led her to repentance herself. But no, and therefore she too will be subject to his judgement. But there is still time: if people can only read the signs of the times, watch what God is doing to other nations, make the links and come in penitence to him there is the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. That ‘perhaps’ motif, which we encountered in Joel 2:14, is present here too.
So the book is, like Amos, a corrective to people who think that because they are God’s chosen people they are immune from punishment and can do exactly what they like. Instead they should gather – this is more corporate than individual – seek God, humility and righteousness. If they do that, perhaps God will spare them when he judges everyone else.
The book ends, though, as so many of the prophetic books do, with a promise of redemption. History tells us that this promise did not prevent exile and punishment, but it did heal it. The language is not of rescue but rather of restoration. Scattered people will be gathered, purified and re-created as a truthful, honest and fearless nation. In the one verse which anyone knows from this book, we have the beautiful picture in 3:17 of God rejoicing and singing with delight over his people. The Mighty Warrior has almost been overcome with delight and compassion. The shame and contempt which the nation has received, not just from Moab and Ammon but also from many other nations will be removed, to be replaced with honour and praise from all who see them.
It is very tempting to read OT books like these individualistically: Jesus has saved me and so all this stuff applies to me as one of his people. It is good to remember that the Bible thinks ‘corporate’ far more than it thinks ‘individual’. If we read this book against the current world scene, and think national rather than personal, it provides some severe warnings about presumption, oppression and national penitence.
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.
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).
It’s an ill wind which blows nobody any good. Imagine, in the middle of world War II, a prophet standing up and announcing God’s judgement on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Bad news for the Nazis, but a great relief for France, Poland, the UK and the rest of Europe. That’s what Nahum is doing as he predicts the destruction of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians. The nations who had suffered at the hands of Assyria’s legendary brutality and cruelty would be cheering this prophet, whose name means ‘Consolation’.
All we know about the guy is that he came from Elkosh (1:1), but since we have no idea where Elkosh is that doesn’t help much. It has been identified with what became Capernaum (literally ‘the village of Nahum’) but we just don’t know. We can, however, date this book fairly accurately, since we know that Nineveh was in fact destroyed in 612 BC. We also know that the destruction of Thebes, to which he likens Nineveh’s downfall (3:8-11), took place in 633 BC, so we have a fairly narrow window. His message is one of unremitting judgement on the city, for its violence, described graphically in 3:1-4, and in particular for its attacks on Israel.
What is interesting about this book, though, is the comparison with Jonah, which probably dates from 150 or so years earlier. We saw that Jonah was called to preach to a city even then legendary for its evil, and that when he was obedient to this call (eventually), the city repented and turned to God. Yet within a few generations the Assyrians are up to their old tricks again, and this time there is neither repentance nor, according to Nahum, any chance of it. Whilst Jonah preached God’s mercy, Nahum preaches only destruction.
So this book raises all kinds of questions about God’s judgement and mercy, the permanence or otherwise of repentance, and ultimately the famous ‘Once saved always saved’ controversy in the Christian church. History shows us that in spite of her earlier repentance after Jonah’s ministry Nineveh had again become renowned for her brutality, and that the averted destruction did happen in the end. What we don’t know is whether the people’s earlier repentance was genuine or not, although God seemed to think so at the time. So Nahum’s message reminds us that each generation has to choose afresh whether or not it is going to serve God, and that repentance on behalf of our children is not possible. It also reflects the reality that sometimes people do lose the plot and slide back from an earlier commitment to God. It may also be that the reference to ‘witchcraft’ in 3:4, which is not developed any further by Nahum, points to some spiritual disease in the land which, without healing, simply causes the behaviour to manifest itself again in future generations. We can see this dynamic at work in all sorts of ways, for example in churches which repeat patterns of sinful behaviour keep occurring, although manifested by a new set of people. Deep repentance and healing, of the kind advocated by people like Russ Parker is necessary to break sinful cycles.
Fortunately we live the other side of the cross from Nahum, so there is never, in this life, a point where judgement completely rules out the offer of mercy. We still have the responsibility of making sure that our repentance sticks, but even when it doesn’t we have a God to whom we can return, again and again.
 Notably in his Healing Wounded History (London: SPCK, 2012)
Image: “Adad gate exterior entrance north3” by Fredarch – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Adad_gate_exterior_entrance_north3.JPG. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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.
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
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
I’ve gone for the Candlemas theme for this week, on the assumption that it is likely to be celebrated a day early in many churches, and also because it is an occasion I enjoy. The familiar words of Malachi, mediated via the gift of Handel’s Messiah, raise an interesting question for us.
This week I have been involved in a long facebook conversation which came out of a friend’s blog. Somehow we got onto the subject of ‘niceness’. We started off on why men hate going to church, but we soon arrived at the suggestion that church was too ‘nice’ for most blokes. I put the word safely inside inverted commas so you’ll know what I mean, but it was suggested that being nice is fine: kindness, gentleness and so on are good Christian qualities. But to me the problem is when we’re only ever allowed to be ‘nice’; when the harsher realities of life, and church life, are brushed under the carpet because they’re not ‘nice’. Stuff like conflict, reality, death – you know the kinds of thing.
Candlemas is basically a nice festival. You’ve got some all-age worship as an elderly pair of people encounter a little baby, you’ve got the beautiful words of what the Church has called the
Nunc dimittis, and some lovely prophecies about Jesus’ life and ministry. But the OT reading, and indeed even some of the Gospel story, give us a different picture. This sweet baby comes bringing judgement. Many are going to fall because of him, Mary herself will know the pain of a pierced heart, and her son will naturally enough stir up great hostility. The truth is, he is not being born into a ‘nice’ system. Malachi, writing after the completion of the rebuilding of the Temple, is telling people not to get too up themselves just because a building project is complete. If the God in whose honour this building was raised were actually to come among the people some things would be anything but ‘nice’. The images of launderers’ soap and refiners’ fire are violent images, and the testifying against various categories of naughty people sounds scary for those people. They must surely reflect some of what was currently going on, and the images of occultism, adultery, lying, injustice and oppression are not a pretty sight. In the same way Jesus’ ministry was going to be one of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable, as many of those around the Temple were to find out. Following him was no easy option, and he never told anyone it would be.
On a larger scale Candlemas is about a change of direction: we face away from Christmas, and all the lovely birth narrative stuff with its shepherds, little lambs and the like, and turn towards Lent and Passiontide; away from birth towards death. This too is a turn away from ‘niceness’ in the direction of something far less comfortable and far more demanding.
To follow Jesus is to be challenged, judged and purified until the offering of our lives are ‘offerings in righteousness’ (v 3) Purification is not ‘nice’, but it is essential, and the end results are much nicer without the inverted commas.
Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
The story of Samuel’s prophetic ‘coming of age’ is set in a time when ‘the word of the Lord was rare’. What we might call the ‘supernatural’ action of God ebbs and flows throughout the Bible, and indeed has throughout church history too. Samuel appears at a time of low ebb, and his prophetic career is launched solely by the sovereign intervention of God.
I’ll leave you to decide for yourself whether we too live in a time when there are ‘not many visions’, but this passage raises two different questions: how do we hear and recognise the voice of God, and what is the place of children and parents in this area?
Many of us, I guess, will have had times when we have sensed in some way that God is trying to get through to us. Those more used to this kind of thing, perhaps through charismatic renewal, will know what it means to have thoughts come into their heads which kind of feel like God, or see a mental picture, or experience a dream which feels significant. But so often we are quick to write these kinds of experiences off as our own thoughts, or even a result of that late night cheese we had. Samuel fortunately has Eli as his mentor, and he is quick to recognise what the young boy does not and to encourage him to respond appropriately. I don’t know how good experienced leaders are at encouraging others to learn to trust their instincts and listen actively to the Spirit, but it surely ought to be part of our ministry. The twist in the tail of this story comes, of course, when the message God wants to give is an uncompromising message of judgement on the very man who is encouraging Samuel to hear it. The message is totally without hope: those of us older in the ways of the church need to be prepared, when mentoring younger people, to hear sometimes about the death of our old and sometimes corrupt ways.
It is ironic, therefore, that Eli, who is so good at nurturing and encouraging Samuel in his prophetic career, is condemned because of his failure to disciple his own family. We’re told in chapter 2 about his sons Hophni and Phinehas, and their behaviour in terms of greed, the dishonouring of God’s sacrifices, and sexual immorality, and of Eli’s somewhat feeble attempts to discipline them, and it seems to contrast greatly with his care of Samuel. But we all know that it can sometimes be easier to deal with other people’s kinds than our own.
So how might your church encourage people of all ages to listen to God, and to expect that he might speak? We’re often told that prayer is as much about listening to God as it is to speaking to him, but rarely in my experience are we given any help in actually knowing how to do this. It’s a whole subject on its own, but my top hints would be to give God significant time and space, and learn to believe that the first thing which pops into your head is most likely to be from God, and is usually followed quickly by our own self doubts and rationalisations. My own experience is that children take to this like ducks to water, without the all-pervading self doubt of adults. We also need to help people to know how to handle what they think they may have heard, whom they might share it with, and so on. I personally would also encourage people to believe that the stuff in Deuteronomy 18 about putting false prophets to death no longer applies, and it’s Ok to have a God even if you don’t quite get it right. And let’s pray that the word of the Lord might not be so rare any more.
I find myself on a steep learning curve at the moment. I am an unashamed townie, but I am working at the moment with several different groups of deeply rural Lincolnshire parishes. I am discovering just how profoundly I don’t understand rural life, and how tempting it is to try to plant urban ways of thinking into the rural fields of the diocese. I’m also discovering how deeply ‘Norman Tebbit’ I am: ‘Don’t moan because you can’t get broadband – just move to somewhere proper where you can get it!’ I am aware that this attitude will only alienate me, and so I try to keep it quiet (apart, of course, from blogging about it), but I am aware of the need for me to learn and grow in my understanding, and for the church to discover a genuinely rootedly rural spirituality, but one which is also thoroughly biblical.
But at the same time it may be that my distance can help me to see some things more clearly. So when people from country parishes tell me that their greatest calling is to ‘be there’ for people in case they might need them in hard times, I wonder what happened to challenge or a call to repentance. Christ and the apostles called people to repent, even ‘commanded’ them to do so. I see this deeply absent from rural Christianity, and, the more I think about it, from much urban Christianity too. Have we all become far too nice?
When I first began to learn about pastoral counselling, we were told about the need both to comfort and to confront. Either one without the other is counterproductive in different ways, but both together can be very effective. In the time of Micah in the 8th century BC, we appear to have ‘prophets’ who would only say nice things, but Micah himself, who is gloriously free from such a tendency, has the task of declaring Israel’s transgression and sin. Their failure to care for the poor, their perpetuation of class systems and injustice, their corruption, bribery and bloodshed are deeply abhorrent to God, and all this is made so much worse because of their presumption and complacency. ‘No disaster will come upon us!’, they believe, and it is the prophet’s job to burst their bubble and warn them of the danger of their presumption.
Many in today’s church have bought into a package in which the belief that God loves us unconditionally, that Jesus was there to serve the needs of everyone, and that hell and judgement are outdated ideas, are all wrapped up together in a warm fuzzy gift-wrapped spirituality of inoffensiveness. Isn’t it ironic, therefore, that Micah is the one filled with the Spirit, power and justice. The implication, which we see so often in the pages of the Bible, is that to be Spirit-filled is not a nice option, and is likely to lead us to speak unpopular truth rather than beautiful lies. As we enter the ‘Kingdom’ season and approach Advent, with its themes of penitence and preparation, we need to watch this tendency to become infected with the spirit of the age and its highest value ‘tolerance’, a deeply sub-Christian sentiment. And we need to remember that ‘Gentle Jesus’, the Servant King, is also the one who proclaims woes against those who live in tolerant presumption.