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 – Matthew

Welcome to the New Testament – you’ll notice that from now on I’m on less solid ground as my first love is the OT, but I’ll have a go.

The NT begins with four gospels, accounts of the life and death of Jesus seen from four different viewpoints. I once asked four members of a homegroup to describe the Sunday morning service at which we had all been a few days earlier. As you might imagine the accounts were very different, to the point of wondering whether we had all been at the same service! A musician told us what songs we had sung; a parent told about what the children and been up to; someone else described the sermon in some detail but hadn’t much to say about anything else. It isn’t that the people were being deliberately dishonest, or trying to rewrite history: they just genuinely saw it differently. Whenever we read the gospels we are hearing accounts written from a particular point of view, with different audiences in mind and different areas of interest. By reading all four gospels we are helped to build up a rounded picture of who Jesus was and what he did. It might not also be stretching things too far to see in the gospels different Myers-Briggs personality types. So where is Matthew coming from, and what does he tell us?

 

Matthew has a distinctly Jewish flavour. It is clearly intended for Jewish readers: it does not explain Jewish terms or customs (compare with Mark), it is constantly looking for fulfilments of OT texts, and uses the term ‘Kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘of God’ since saying the divine name was forbidden to Jews, as the Monty Python boys so eloquently illustrated for us. The boring bits in chapter 1 make sure that we understand Jesus’ descent from the OT worthies. There is a pattern of fives in the book, perhaps based on the five books of the Torah, with alternate slices of teaching and action. And there is much made of Jesus’ relationship with the OT Law, as he comes to make it both less and more demanding.

 

There is also a sense that Matthew is highly critical of the Jewish leaders and theologians, as he writes up Jesus’ condemnation of them with seeming relish. His is a gospel for the dominant ‘T’s, and his Jesus is a teacher with a very black and white outlook, and he teaches what it means to live in the direction of the Kingdom of God, which all good Jews were expecting as a future state. He lives in fulfilment of the OT, he dies as a sacrifice for sins, and he rises to take his place of total authority. Matthew’s burning desire is that his Jewish countrymen should understand that all they have been living for is to be fulfilled and completed in Jesus, and that they should recognise him to be the Messiah for whom they were longing and hoping.

 

Next week we’ll see, by complete contrast, how Mark tells the same story.

 

 

OT Lectionary Feb 23 Lent -2 Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

Well, what do we make of this, particularly in the age of Dawkins et al? This chapter-and-a-bit sets out the traditional account of creation, or at least one of them, and it has been the interpretation of this passage which has caused so much argument in the church and so much ridicule outside it. How do we deal with it?

The easy answer is to read the passage not as one telling us how creation happened, which is the view of fundamentalists, both atheist and Christian, but as why it happened. In fact this passage is deeply theological, and more than just a day-by-day account of the creation.

But there is a less noddy way of approaching the creation narratives. In fact they tell us less about how it happened than about the people who told the story. Most cultures have some kind of a creation story, and in fact there are three of them mentioned in the Bible, and a fourth which has come to popularity since. The first is the Babylonian story, about a battle between Marduk, the God, and Tiamat, the sea monster. Tiamat ended up in two pieces, and Marduk made the heavens and the earth, one from each half. This story was told by a warlike people whose gods were always fighting each other, which is presumably why they enjoyed a good bundle so much. This story is alluded to many times in the OT, without them actually believing a word of it, rather as we might use the story of Pandora’s box to make a point without actually saying that we believe it happened.

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Then there is the story in Gen 2, which almost certainly dates from around the time of King David, and which was told by a nation at the top of their game. So the human race were at the peak, with the rest of creation under their domination. It was us who came first, and for whom the rest of creation was given to provide a backdrop. It was us who gave names to the animals, and who are to care for the land.

So to the Genesis 1 story, which probably dates from a much later period, probably during or just after the Babylonian exile. The people now are sadder and wiser. They have a bigger sense of God and a smaller sense of themselves, so they are part afterthought and part crown of creation. But there is also some anti-Babylonian polemic: the word for ‘deep’ in v 2 is the same root as ‘Tiamat’, and like Marduk God separates it to make earth and heaven. ‘It wasn’t your Marduk who cut the sea monster in half’ the Israelites are saying. ‘It was our capital-G God! And by the way, all those stars you worship – he made them too, and the trees and plants: everything, in fact’. This story comes from a people who know their place, but have also learnt God’s place too – supreme over everything.

Understand this and you get a new insight into the fourth creation story: evolution by natural selection. Whether or not it’s true (and personally I have serious doubts, but that’s another blog) it tells us a tremendous amount about the culture which created it: a culture which believes in science as the ultimate answer to every question, an enlightenment worldview where everything is slowly evolving towards perfection, and where information is power. We have unlearnt the lessons of the exile about the supremacy of God, and so we tell a story which doesn’t need him. The question is less about whether the stories are ‘true’ or not,  but about whether the people who told them are right.

OT Lectionary 16th Feb Lent -3 Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Choose Life!

‘I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.’ Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton off of Trainspotting deliberately chooses the self-destructive lifestyle of heroin addiction, counting that a better way than middle-class conformity. The choice the Israelites are called to make is even less complex than that. Obey God, and you’ll thrive, oppose him and you’ll be destroyed. Bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it? Yet those who are supposed to be God’s people constantly make bad choices, you and I included. History tells us that rather than enjoying God’s blessing and many more years in the land God had promised and given to them, a land which they were about to enter for the first time, they constantly rebelled against God and were eventually exiled and scattered among the other nations. Still today the ‘land’ is a matter of major international dispute and warfare.

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This stark passage raises two questions worthy of our consideration: the first is ‘Why are we so stupid?’, but the second is deeper: ‘Is it really that clear cut?’

The answer to the first is quite simply that sin is enjoyable. It has to be, or else no-one would bother with it. Right back in Genesis 3 the fruit ‘was good for food and pleasing to the eye’: I guess it would have been much less tempting had it looked and smelt like tripe or mussels or something. When the C of E was revising its Baptism liturgy for Common Worship the original draft of the promises asked:

‘Do you reject the glamour, deceit and corruption of evil?

Do you renounce all proud rebellion against God?’

The text which was finally authorised had lost the words ‘glamour’ and ‘proud’: I consider that this is a tragic weakening of the biblical picture of sin and arrogance, and I still keep them in when I baptise. If we are not interested in something, it will have no power over us, but it is precisely that ‘glamour’ which feels so attractive, although of course there is always a sting in the tail, which is why the word ‘deceit’ is so vital too. It is worth considering which sinful things attract us, and what we might do to see through their deceit, see them as they really are and so find it easier to avoid them. I guess sanctification is a life-long journey of discovery in this area, as sin appeals less and less the more time we’ve spent with God.

But is it really as simple as Deuteronomy makes out? Obviously not, or why the eternal agonised questioning of the human race as to why good people suffer, a debate into which I have myself have dipped my toes? https://revjohnleach.com/category/godingrimtimes-2/ #godingrimtimes.  The fact is that those who honour God often find themselves in deep trouble, whilst those who ignore him appear to prosper. But what the Bible does say, I believe, that to refuse to choose God won’t ultimately get you anywhere. And to those who do choose him, there is the promise of eternal reward eventually. Pie in the sky when you die? Of course! As we said last week, the Bible is unashamed in its promises of reward for God’s faithful people. Our mistake is that we want that reward now, rather than later.

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 2nd Feb Candlemas Malachi 3:1-5

As is so often the case, we have to read back a little way in order to understand this passage in its own context. In fact a new section begins in 2:17 with the prophet telling the people that they have worn God out with their complaining. Apparently the idea was gaining currency that because they couldn’t see bad people getting the comeuppance they deserved, God must be approving what they were doing. They looked for a God of justice, a God who would punish evil and reward goodness, but instead all they found was a God who let nasty people get away with it. So we hear again the eternal question ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

When someone says something about us which is just so blatantly untrue and unfair, we can’t help but respond to put them right. That’s exactly what the prophet does in God’s name. He will indeed do something. After an introductory herald, the Lord will appear in his Temple. The word ‘suddenly’ contains a hidden sense of threat, as though God is going to catch out the wicked red-handed, with their smoking guns.

 

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The picture then changes to two related images: that of a refiner of metal, and a launderer. The idea in both is of getting rid of impurities, either by burning them away or washing them clean. But interestingly it is not the ‘wicked’ who are to be subjected to a good scrubbing or burning, but the Levites, the religious leaders who ought to have known better. In fact their corrupt lifestyle has meant that the sacrifices of the people have not been acceptable to God. But after they have been refined the Levites will be able, as in the past, to offer acceptable sacrifices. So what have they been up to? The list in v 5 seems pretty unbecoming at the least for religious leaders, but of course sounds remarkably up-to-date.

So what are we to make of this passage? It is difficult to see a single fulfilment for it. The lectionary’s use of it for Candlemas, when Jesus is presented in the Temple and meets Anna and Simeon seems only marginally appropriate: although Simeon could prophetically spot the coming judgement, the violence of the Malachi passage seems far from a small helpless baby. The reference to ‘my messenger’ (Hebrew ‘malachi’), along with the message of judgement, suggests much more John the Baptist followed by the cleansing of the Temple (early as in John’s gospel rather than the Synoptics’ Holy Week), although none of the gospels pick up Malachi as an OT reference.

So maybe this passage, rather than being a ‘prophecy’ about John and Jesus, provides us with a warning never to attribute to God characteristics which fly in the face of all we know about him really, and never to allow our standards of behaviour to fall below what would be pleasing to him. This is a call to holy thinking and holy living, and a promise of refinement and cleansing for those who seek it.

OT Lectionary 26th Jan Epiphany 3 Is 9:1-4

We’re so used to hearing this passage at Christmas time, as a ‘prophecy’ about the Messiah’s birth (see this blog for Christmas http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-2z) that we easily forget that the OT, rather than simply being words which are not going to have any relevance for a few hundred years’ time, addresses real situations which real people are facing. In this case there is imminent threat of invasion from Assyria, and quite understandably the people are beginning to get a bit sweaty, particularly those living in the north of Israel, who are going to be the first hit as the invaders sweep down from the north. So forgetting the Messiah for a moment, what is God saying to the people, and to us, through this passage?

First of all, there is an acknowledgement of the real suffering of the people. Those living in the north had indeed been devastated by the invasion: they really were in distress and gloom. I note with interest that there is no sense of an apology from God. We’d be agonising about why he had allowed such terrible pain, how it wasn’t fair etc etc. We’d be expecting some great theology of suffering, or a profound explanation of why God, in his infinite mercy, had not stopped the invading hoards in their tracks. Instead, all we get is that the northern tribes had been ‘humbled’. Frustrating or what?

Instead, there’s simply a promise. With the change of tenses we have noted before, God promises an end to oppression, light in their darkness, the breaking of their oppressors’ power, and joy to replace their fear and sorrow.

 

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This raises a really important question, one which many suffering Christians have agonised over. Put simply, the question is: ‘Why does God not think that prevention is better than cure?’ Why does he so often promise restoration after suffering, rather than stopping the suffering in the first place? It really does seem to be the case that God sees things differently from us. We’d do everything we could to make it all nice, so of course if we were Almighty God we’d make sure that no-one else ever had anything nasty happen to them. For some reason God doesn’t play that game.

I wonder whether there’s a clue in the word ‘humbled’. The fact is that the Bible is a lot more positive about pain and suffering than we tend to be. Sometimes, according to several passages, it can do us good to hurt a bit. And while this sounds callous, any dentist will understand it: for the good of our health it is important that it hurts for a while. Of course we all try to avoid suffering and causing suffering, but sometimes it is inevitable and for our good. One day we will find out from God what the hard times we have been through have put into us for our good, but in the meantime suffering remains a mystery and a subject for agonised theological debate. Our job is to learn more and more to see things from God’s point of view and consider it joy when we face trials. Not an easy task!