Old Testament Lectionary 6th Sept Trinity 14 Isaiah 35:4-7a

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

We begin by noting two somewhat strange things about this passage. The first is that it reads much more like Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) than Isaiah of Jerusalem, in whose section of the whole book is it placed. It seems as though this chapter has become detached, although the bigger context demonstrates well why this might be an appropriate place for it. The second strange thing is why on earth our dear friends the lectionary compilers have whipped an odd three and a half verses out of a chapter which makes perfect sense, and which falls neatly into two halves midway through our passage.

In a bigger context still chapter 35 contrasts dramatically with the preceding chapter, an announcement of God’s judgement. Edom in particular is singled out for punishment, and there are vivid pictures of a thriving land reverting to desert under the Lord’s vengeance. By contrast, therefore, the Israelites in chapter 35 are to experience two events: God himself coming among them (v 1-6a) and the nation’s return from exile as the desert once again becomes fruitful (v 6b-10).

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One key word which links all these thoughts together is the word ‘vengeance’ in v 4. We usually tend to see rescue and vengeance as two equal and opposite things, which show God as nice and nasty respectively. But the Hebrew word naqam is more nuanced than that: it refers to judgement and punishment by a legitimate authority, and so that justice can be restored for those who have been treated badly. Sometimes you can’t have justice and liberation without punishment: Moses as well as Isaiah knew that.

Like many prophecies there is something of a telescope effect here. Just when are we to expect the fulfilment of these words? On an immediate level the text clearly refers to the return from exile in Babylon, and the language of highways and blossoming deserts is unmistakably linked to later passages such as chapter 40. But the healing of v 5-6 sounds more Messianic and even eschatological. Does ‘entering Zion’ in v 10 refer merely to the return to Jerusalem, or does it seek fulfilment much further ahead in the heavenly city? The Bible often uses this multi-staged approach, and seems to remain deliberately vague. Sometimes the small positives in our lives can point to a much bigger and eternal reality, and hope can sustain us and spur us on in our discipleship.

Note also the language of separation implicit in this passage, as it is throughout the Bible, making life very difficult for universalists. The fearful, the weak, the blind, deaf and lame are to the be recipients of God’s favour, while the unclean wicked fools will be excluded. Only the redeemed, those whom God has rescued, will enter Zion. We need to make sure that through Christ our Messiah we are those who will receive the restitution part of God’s naqam, and not the punishment.

Image: By Rennett Stowe from USA (Desert Flowers  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary Nov 9th 3 before Advent/Remembrance Sunday Amos 5:18-24

At first sight it isn’t easy to see what this passage has to do with the ‘Remembrance’ theme which will be uppermost in everyone’s minds this week. Personally I prefer chapter 4, which I have preached on several times on Remembrance Day: ‘”I killed your young men with the sword … yet you have not returned to me”, says the Lord.’

 What we have today is something of a purple passage for the bashing of charismatics by those who think that social justice is the most important thing for Christians to be doing, and indeed that is what Amos appears to be saying, although of course in the broader sweep of the book he isn’t saying don’t worship, but rather when you worship make sure it is with integrity, holiness and concern for others.

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 So how are we to read this passage in the context of Remembrance, with all its associated and contradictory themes of courage, thankfulness, pacifism, if you’ve died in battle you get to go straight to heaven, and so on? What can we learn about the nature of God?

 The background, of course, is the Israelite belief in ‘the Day of the Lord’, that coming time when God would step in and intervene, defeat once and for all those nations who had been so nasty to the Jews, and put Israel back in their place as Top Nation. Yes, says Amos, the Day of the Lord is coming, but you lot are in for a nasty shock. If God is coming to punish and overthrow evildoers, you are at the top of his list. You’re longing for that day to come, but it will be you, not the nations around you, who will be in for a bit of divine smiting. Light won’t dawn for the nation: it’ll be pitch darkness instead. As such this oracle is a warning against presumption and comfortable neglect of God’s standards. Let those who think they stand beware lest they fall.

 

But the second part of the passage is more difficult. We know that God loves justice and righteousness more than mere music without integrity – that’s a given. So what are justice and righteousness? And in particular, what are justice and righteousness in the context of Islamic State, the Taliban, radicalisation and terrorism? Is the right thing to do to avoid violence and warfare at any cost? Or are there times when injustice and bloodshed demand a righteous response of military action? The pacifist point of view would argue that violence is never justified under any circumstances, but others would disagree. I can remember a Baptist minister who was influential in my teenage years, and who had been a forces chaplain in North Africa, on the beaches of Normandy and ultimately in Belsen, preaching on this subject. ‘When you saw what Hitler was doing’, he told us, ‘I knew that he just had to be stopped.’ So what is the just and righteous response today in 2014? I’ll let you answer that for yourself, but what we can say is that to bury our heads in heavenly worship without agonising over that question is not an option.