Old Testament Lectionary Feb 15th Sunday before Lent 2 Kings 2:1-12

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

A commentary I read on today’s OT passage suggests that it is a story of boundary-crossings.

There is the obvious transition across the Jordan out of the Promised Land, but there is also the passing on of the prophetic anointing across generations, and the tearing open of the boundary between heaven and earth. As such it provides a helpful model of the transition which we are to make this coming week, from Ordinary Time into Lent.

Why is Elijah’s assumption into heaven to take place outside the boundaries of the Promised Land? We don’t know, but there is something about a prophet being without honour in his own land. As a parish priest I have known the freedom and creativity which comes simply from leaving my patch for a quiet day or a time of writing or preparation. Whether in the former El Tico’s in St Ouen’s Bay, at Dobbies’ Garden Centre or at a friend’s bungalow in the Wolds, there is freedom which I don’t feel at home. Maybe after all his conflict and confrontation Elijah had to get out of his ‘parish’ in order to be free to return to his Father. Maybe some kind of ‘getting away from it all’ will form a part of our Lenten refreshment, where we withdraw in order to return to our Father (although hopefully not permanently).

Elijah Elisha

The second motif is that of passing on the baton to his successor. Elisha is a willing pupil, reluctant to leave his master’s side for a second, and his request for a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit isn’t a request for twice as much, but rather that he officially become his heir. Lent is indeed a time for personal spiritual renewal and refreshment, but it might also remind us of our responsibility for others. What are we doing which will influence, train or disciple those around us, with whom we share a calling to speak and live the values of the Kingdom of God? Maybe for some of us it provides an opportunity to pass on some area of ministry in which we have found our identity to a new, perhaps younger, generation, never an easy thing to do if we have come to believe that we are saviours of the universe and that without us life as we know it simply cannot go on.

Thirdly, there is the heaven/earth boundary which is crossed as the river opens miraculously, as heaven sends down the fiery taxi to pick up Elijah, and most significantly as Elisha sees Elijah’s departure and is thus confirmed as his heir. Slightly after the end of our passage Elisha checks this out dramatically, as he strikes the river, calls out for the God of Elijah, and re-enters the battlefield.  Those who are keen on Celtic spirituality will be familiar with the concept of ‘thin places’, where the boundaries between heaven and earth seem to be particularly flimsy: maybe Lent is a ‘thin time’. As we give ourselves to deepening our discipleship, paying attention to our walk with God, and growing in our faith, maybe we will cross some boundaries ourselves, know a new anointing of the Holy Spirit, and re-enter that battle which is Christian living with new heart and new confidence in the God of miracles.

OT Lectionary April 6th Lent 5 Ezekiel 37:1-14

As I write I’m busily mugging up on church growth theory for a job interview, and I can remember a time in the past when God spoke to me powerfully through this well-known passage about the Valley of Dry Bones. In particular my attention was drawn to the process by which a pile of dead skeletons became a mighty army. The parallels to the church today are only too obvious, but the passage may speak to us more personally too. Where there is dryness and deadness it is God’s will to bring life and flourishing, whether in the church today with all its dryness or in the lives of Lent-weary Christians.

Stage 1: First of all Ezekiel is invited to take stock. That walking to and fro in the graveyard allowed him to see clearly the true state of affairs. I can remember one staff meeting in one of the churches I served when I made us all go for a walk around the church buildings, really concentrating on what we could see, and trying to see it through the eyes of someone who was visiting for the first time. It was a most depressing morning as we noticed broken windows, peeling paint, piles of junk everywhere, broken bits of equipment which no-one had felt it was their job to throw away – you get the idea. But that miserable perambulation began a process of change and refurbishment of our buildings. So that’s the first question, which God doesn’t actually ask here, although he does in other places: ‘What do you see?’

Stage 2: Then comes the supplementary: ‘Can these bones live?’ After inviting him to face the reality, God brings hope, followed by action: ‘Prophesy to these bones!’ I think there’s a difference between praying about a situation and prophesying over it, but the prophesying can only come at the Lord’s command. It is not something we take upon ourselves to do. But Ezekiel has heard God, and so in obedience he proclaims the purposes of the Lord over the bones, and they begin to stir.

 

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Stage 3: So far so good. The dead bones are now bodies. But they’re only zombies. They haven’t got the breath (or ‘spirit’) of life in them. So a third stage is needed, as Ezekiel, again, note, at God’s command, prophesies to the breath/spirit/wind – it’s all the same word – and life enters the bodies.

This story always reminds me of that famous verse from Psalm 127: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.’ We can build structures, but unless God breathes his Spirit into them, we’re wasting our time. We can do all the right stuff to get our churches to grow, but if the Lord doesn’t sovereignly start revealing his truth to people, what’s the point? We can fast and pray and all the rest through Lent, but if Jesus doesn’t meet us it’s all empty. So much of what we do in the Christian life and in the Church seems only to be half the job, with little in terms of life-bringing or life-changing results. We can’t make God act; we can’t prophesy with our own breath, but we can cry out to God with all that is within us for him to act. In my experience he usually acts on the raw material which we have prepared: he breathes his life into the skeletons we have put together, so this is not an excuse for passivity. But this story does remind us, I believe, of our desperate need for God’s Spirit who alone can bring new life.

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Lent 4 1 Samuel 16:1-13

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, so if you’d rather use those readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4J 

This passage is all about appearances being deceptive, and about the way that as humans we struggle to see things in the same way that God sees them. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) tries to analyse the nature of discipleship, and the ways in which we grow into it. His second step, after Biblical knowledge, is Perspective, which may be defined exactly as this ability to understand how God sees things, and to subdue our personal likes and dislikes to his. For example, in an age where sin has gone out of fashion (while sinning, apparently, remains as popular as ever) Christians need to understand just how repugnant it is to God, and just how harmful it is to individuals and to society as a whole. When we see sin as he does, that makes it a whole lot easier to want to avoid it.

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Getting God’s perspective on things, therefore, will often bring us naturally into conflict with the values of the world around us. It isn’t that Christians are meant to be unpopular: it’s just that we’re meant to be unpopular for the right reasons and over the right issues. So how do we gain this sense of perspective? How do we learn to see what God sees, which is so often buried under the surface?

Samuel basically learns here through trial and error, and ears open to God’s promptings. On one level he doesn’t come out of this chapter looking very good at all. First of all he’s hanging on to the past: God has to rebuke him because of his over-fond memories of King Saul (whom, of course, he had previously anointed). The hard truth is that God has rejected him: God forbid that we hold onto something God has finished with – there’s a lesson for the church right there, which I have discussed elsewhere in my Ending Well (www.grovebooks.co.uk R39). His next mistake is to assume that he knows the answer himself – he has already made his mind up without a single word from the Lord as soon as he sees how butch Eliab is. So again God has to remind him that he sees things differently, and that he sees the hidden things of the heart, the irony being that while Samuel himself looks every bit the prophet, enough in fact to scare the good townsfolk of Bethlehem, his heart is so mistaken, which God can see.

From then on he seems sadder and wiser, and ready to hear when God rejects Eliab’s brothers one by one. So do we hear in his question to Jesse about any more sons the conviction that there must be, because God hasn’t chosen any so far, or rather a lack of faith in God, or in his ability to hear him (‘Of course you haven’t got any more sons, have you?’) I’ll let you decide that one, but at the end of the passage he seems at least to have learnt one thing: in obedience to God’s word he anoints this young bit of a kid, and then presumably sees evidence of the rightness of this action as the Spirit anoints David too.

I don’t think the major question is whether or not we have gained God’s perspective: we’re all on the way, hopefully. But it is about being obedient even when we’re not sure, giving God, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.

OT Lectionary Lent 1 Mar 9th Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Just what is sin?

Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’

We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.

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The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.

There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.

There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere[1], is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.


Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)

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.