OT Lectionary October 12th Trinity 17 Isaiah 25:1-9

To understand today’s passage we need first to understand the concept of ‘apocalyptic’ literature. The word literally means ‘unveiling’ and is applied to the kind of writing, usually coming from times of great tribulation and persecution, when our eyes are lifted from the present troubles to the final page, on which God will have the ultimate victory and everything will be fine. We’re most familiar with this genre from the book of Revelation, but there is plenty more of it throughout the Bible, and Isaiah chapters 24-27 have been called ‘Isaiah’s Apocalypse’. Like all apocalyptic literature it is gloriously vague as to geography and timescale: ‘on that day’ is used seven times over these four chapters, but never with any indication of exactly what day. Similarly ‘this mountain’ (v 7) is never identified. It is also difficult to place from which period of Israel’s history this passage originates, although the evidence would suggest that it comes from difficult times.

So all this vagueness notwithstanding, what was the point of writing this stuff, and what truths can this text tell us? The idea of apocalyptic is always to encourage, to help people stay focussed, remain steadfast through the trials, and somehow to find the strength to keep plodding on. It does this by encouraging the readers to see past the trouble to the outcome. For a marathon runner it might be the vision of the winners’ podium; for a dieter it could be a picture of the new slimmed-down you: for persecuted Israel it is a banquet. Enemies will have been defeated by the hand of God (v 2, 5), and yet the original call of Abraham to bless all nations is being fulfilled by the inclusivity of the feast which is ‘for all peoples’ (v 6). As you might expect the banquet is no Tesco Value kind of meal: there is no ‘Christian Quiche’ or ‘Beige Buffet’ in sight. Only the best will do for God’s purposes.

Then, in line with apocalyptic vagueness, there are even greater purposes behind God’s final action: ‘the shroud that enfolds all peoples’ (whatever that is) will be taken away, ‘the people’s disgrace’ will be removed, and death itself will be swallowed up. The God who has been a refuge in hard times (v 4) becomes the warrior who will not just hide people from trouble but will deal with those causing the trouble at root level. The punchline comes in v 9, where the people are encouraged to anticipate the final dénouement, and to celebrate the fact that in spite of it all God has been with them and for them.

 

Christians are often accused of ‘triumphalism’ (which I define as ‘wanting your triumph too early’), and of an excessive concern with ‘pie in the sky when you die’. This passage, like so many others in Scripture, forbids triumphalism by taking seriously the present evil, but also promises exactly ‘pie in the sky’, even if we don’t have to die to get it. Every strand of the NT motivates Christians by holding before them the promise of future reward, from the Sermon on the Mount, which is all about being rewarded, through to Revelation and its glimpses of final glory. I love the quote from CS Lewis:

 

“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised to us in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.

“We are far too easily pleased.”

(C S Lewis, The Weight of Glory.)

 

God will have the last word – let that encourage you!

 

 

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.

File:Earth from Space.jpg

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.

File:Road Fork - geograph.org.uk - 415867.jpg

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.

 

File:Melting crucible.jpg

 

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.

 

https://i0.wp.com/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!