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.

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Dentist_assistants.JPG

 

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!

 

 

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.

File:Staten-Generaal.PNG

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!

OT Lectionary Jan 12th The Baptism of Christ Is 42:1-9

File:Jacopo Tintoretto 033.jpg

OT Lectionary – a weekly series of devotional thoughts on the OT reading for next Sunday.

 

The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the time to remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Baptism is one of the most undervalued and misunderstood of the things Jesus left for us: as one brought up in the Baptist Church who only later became an Anglican I have had to do a complete rethink of my theology of baptism. So how can our passage from Isaiah speak to us today?

Chapter 42 is the first of four ‘Servant Songs’ which appear in this section of Isaiah, and just about every theological student has had to write an essay on who exactly the ‘Servant’ was or is. Indeed this was the very question raised by the Ethiopian official in Acts 8. The consensus is that the Servant is the idealised nation of Israel, not weak, beaten down and exiled as she was at the time but renewed, powerful and fulfilling her destiny given by God to be a light to the whole world. The previous chapter of Isaiah talks about this. So this first Servant Song has parallels with the baptism which launched Jesus into public ministry as the one who fulfilled par excellence the role of ‘Servant’.

The passage tells us about the Servant’s ministry, but also about the way that ministry will be carried out, and the basis from which it will be carried out. The first four verses explain the teaching ministry which is about justice and encouragement, and the passage goes on to explain that it will be an international ministry aimed at freedom and illumination for those in darkness.

So what is this freedom fighter’s style? To a nation used to the harsh cries of Babylonian taskmasters (which no doubt echoed in the collective memory with those of Egyptian taskmasters hundreds of years earlier) the prophet explains that the Servant’s ministry will be gentle in style, encouraging in nature and with a bias towards those unable to help themselves. This is not the style of a zealot or rabble-rouser, but rather a leader more interested in winning hearts than battles.

On what basis, then, is this ministry to be carried out? The answer is that it is a divine calling. God, through the prophet, labours his credentials: he is the creator, responsible single-handedly for the world and all its people: he is the God who alone is worthy of all honour, and who, just to prove the point, is the only ‘god’ able to predict the future. So you don’t argue with him, right? Springing from this God is the calling to the Servant, the one whom he has chosen, in whom he delights, and whom he will uphold, giving him his Spirit to empower him.

Jesus at his baptism clearly fulfils this passage, and no doubt had it in his mind. As the Father tears open heaven and declares audibly his love and favour for his Son, Jesus is launched into his public ministry of teaching and salvation for all. But the whole point of this story is that the fulfilment doesn’t end with Jesus: our calling as his church, the ‘Israel of God’, is to be Christ’s body here on earth now, continuing the Servant’s ministry. And just as our calling is the same, so is our style and its basis. Today challenges us to reconsider, and maybe to recommit ourselves to, our own baptism and the calling and ministry to which it signed us up.

OT Lectionary Christmas 2 Isaiah 60:1-6

‘Now what?’

Realistically it may well be that the references to gold, incense, and, to a lesser extent, camels, have led to this passage being set for Epiphany, which no doubt many churches will be celebrating this Sunday. It is easy to see how the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus could be found here. But in its original context this passage is probably addressed to Israel newly returned from exile and asking the question ‘Now what?’

File:Natal-Reis-Magos.jpg

I’ve spent the Christmas holidays reading David Bosch’s magisterial Transforming Mission, where he traces the paradigm shifts that the church has undergone down the years in its understanding of just what it is supposed to be doing in terms of mission. What became clear to me was that in our changing thinking we have got it wrong far more than we have got it right. This passage is, I believe, a challenge to Israel to think bigger, to rediscover their original calling, and to go for nothing less than world domination!

I’ve never lived in exile, but I guess if you do the one thing which preoccupies you is getting out and getting home. You live, eat, breathe and sleep both hope and disappointment. But if you do finally make it back to where you belong, the question ‘What next?’ must be a huge one. It can’t take long for the novelty to wear off, and the Israel of the time of these final chapters of Isaiah has the feel of a somewhat disillusioned, purposeless and nominal bunch of people. Haggai suggests to us that in the absence of anything more exciting to occupy themselves, people simply turned to DIY and home improvements.

So the prophet brings them what in years to come would be the message of Epiphany, that God is for everyone, and not just ‘PLUs’ (‘people like us’). God chose Israel to be the waiters and waitresses of the eternal banquet to the gentile guests, but so often they had simply been content to sit and eat themselves. This passage calls them to something bigger and better: they must become those to whom all the nations would come, seeking wisdom, seeking light in their darkness, and in turn bringing tribute and praise to their God. When the Magi came to visit the infant Christ this process started as for the first time those outside the Jewish nation brought their worship to Christ.

This is therefore an incredibly challenging passage to a church in a time of marginalisation. It seems crazy to suggest that David Cameron might ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O Man of God, about unemployment, or the recession, or crime or people-trafficking’. My guess is that ++Justin would be pretty near the bottom of his speed-dial list. But what a vision! A church alive with the wisdom of God, receiving tribute from those who had finally come to see how much they needed us. A church winning the respect of those who had previously had no time at all for us.

Is that how it should be? Some would claim that the church is at its best when vulnerable, weak and marginalised. After all, a crucified Messiah isn’t much to write home about. But I believe we have at Epiphany a picture of something which may for now be only a dream, but which is in God’s purposes for his people: a victorious church receiving the tributes of the nations.

OT Lectionary Christmas 1 Isaiah 63:7-9

One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.

File:Children in Family Room with New Holiday Christmas Tree - Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt.jpg

Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:

Yet they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
    and he himself fought against them.

It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?

But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.