OT Lectionary September 21st St Matthew Proverbs 3:13-18

To be honest I’m not that big on Saints: they have to be handled with extreme caution. The kinds of churches which most go on about them can easily be the kinds of churches where Christian people (or ‘saints’ as the NT calls them) end up feeling deskilled, ordinary and not quite up to the mark, and never likely to end up in a stained glass window. However much preachers tell us we ought to learn from their examples, emulate their holiness, and so on, I never find myself entirely convinced: I usually end up feeling told off instead. However, today is St Matthew the Apostle’s day, so here goes. At least Proverbs might not do us much harm.

It’s easy to see why this passage goes with Matthew: it’s about choosing wisdom rather than wealth, which Matthew went on to do. In the OT wisdom literature ‘Wisdom’ is often personified. The clearest example of this is in Proverbs 8 where ‘she’ is depicted as a wise woman who calls out to people as it were to buy her wares, to embrace wisdom rather than folly, ‘wisdom’ meaning, of course, what the French would call savoir-faire or ‘knowing what to do’. It is not primarily deep philosophy: it is much more about knowing what would be the sensible thing to do in the many decisions with which life presents us.

So in chapter 3 to choose wisdom brings several benefits. Blessedness, profit, value, long life, riches, honour, delight and peace. There is an interesting mix of things which the ‘secular’ world might value and those which would be rather lower on the agenda: profit and riches sound good, but ‘blessedness’ is a bit more vague. The implication, though, is that Matthew, in turning his back on the tax business, and no doubt the corruption, fiddling and profit which went with it, in order to follow Jesus, was choosing the better thing. We’re not told, of course, that Matthew was a villain before his call, but the story of Zaccheus perhaps illustrates Matthew’s call a bit further.

We live in a culture where money is pretty much everything. For some the issue is addiction and greed, for others the corrupt use of wealth, while for some it is the anxiety of knowing where the next bit is going to come from. Few of us have learnt St Paul’s secret of being content with our lot (Phil 4:12), and I can’t help but wonder whether there were times when Matthew looked back and wondered how much easier his life might have been if he had simply told Jesus to push off. Whether Matthew ended up being martyred for his faith is a matter of contention, but there is no doubt that he must have suffered some of the hardships which Jesus promised to those who became his followers.

So what does Matthew make you want to ask of yourself? I sometimes wonder whether a different job might have brought me a bit more fame and fortune than has been my lot as a poor vicar, especially when I see my kinds earning double what I do. On a good day I think wisdom is actually worth more, although I wonder whether poverty and wisdom necessarily go together. But all in all I’m glad I chose to follow Jesus, leave behind my dreams of being a rock star or a top executive. I know that one day it will turn out to have been worth every penny, when I hear my Father say to me ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.

OT Lectionary 27th July Trinity 6 1 Kings 3:5-12

 

‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you’ – now there’s a challenge! What would you ask for?

A few years ago I was preaching on the National Lottery in a series on big issues. Is it OK for Christians to buy tickets? Is it just a bit of harmless fun? Is it a way to give to charity? In spite of having been brought up in a family where gambling was second only to genocide on the league table of sins, I decided that purely for research purposes I ought to buy a ticket before I spoke on the subject.

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I spent the week running up to my sermon knowing in my head that statistically I had no chance of winning anything, yet spending time fantasising about what I would do if I did. After all, someone has got to win! I mentally spent my £7 million several times over, and it was almost a relief when the draw happened and I had, as expected, thrown £1 down the drain. I could stop dreaming and get on with real life.

But what if God were to appear and offer us anything we wanted, guaranteed? Like Solomon, we’d be faced with a fundamental choice: wish stuff for ourselves or for others? Ask for something which I feel would make my life better, or something which would bless others? This reflects a choice we make, actually, most days. We make it in small ways: should I just drop my litter on the pavement because it’s convenient, or walk all the way over there to the bin because it would make town nicer for others if there were no rubbish all over the place? And we make it in big ways: do I vote at the General Election for the party I believe will make my life better, of the one which will benefit society at large (assuming of course that I can find one like that). And of course churches as well as individuals can make this decision. I’m reminded of the Welsh-speaking chapel which became swallowed up in the Cardiff conurbation, and saw an influx of non-Welsh speakers, but chose to continue to hold Welsh-language service because that’s the way they liked it. Needless to say they were dead within a generation, and you won’t need me to develop the other implications of this parable any further.

Note also that this decision comes for Solomon as a new phase of his life begins: he’s brand new to the job of being king, and pretty nervous about it. New starts give us opportunities to ask ourselves again ‘What do we really want?’ And are we more interested in blessing, or being blessed?

What we pray for reflects our heart. And of course the choices we make have implications. However, many would testify to the goodness of God who, when we make right choices, often gives us the other stuff as well.

 

OT Lectionary July 20th Trinity 5 Genesis 28:10-19a

First of all – I’m back! I didn’t drop off the edge of the world – I moved house, then it took me three weeks to get online (Thanks Talktalk! – great service – even worse than last time I moved house) and then the day after I got connected we went off on holiday. Anyway, here I am, new job is great, and blogging is recommenced.

So – Jacob’s dream. I can remember a church which obviously in the past knew only the Authorised Version bearing proudly across the top of the doorway the verse ‘How dreadful is this place!’ They obviously believed themselves to be the gate of heaven, but in Jacob’s thought the gate of heaven was not located in a parish in London: it was the portal or bottleneck through which all intercourse between heaven and earth had to be channelled. The ‘ladder’, or better ‘ramp’ was not the means by which our prayers ascended, but rather how god’s messengers descended, to guide and give instructions to the people on earth. So the Satan, in Job 1, returns to the heavenly court from ‘going about to and fro on the earth’: he would have returned through what we would now call a ‘thin place’.

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The spirituality of places is an inportant yet rarely explored issue: I guess many people will have places which are spiritually significant to them, and there has always been a significant industry of ‘pilgrimage’ to holy sites around the world. indeed, the primary reason for the telling of this story may well have been aetiological: in other words, it was a bit like a ‘Just So’ story: when your kids asked you why Bethel was such a special place, you could tell them this story to explain. but even within this there are a few significant details worthy of our attention.

Note first the totally unexpected nature of the encounter, which came totally from God’s initiative. Jacob is neither a seeking pilgrim nor a penitent sinner: he is on the run, but God chooses to meet him. Then notice how he meets him – not with a telling-off, but simply with reassurance about his security in the future, and safe passage to get there. Jacob wakes up and realises that he happens to have bedded down for the night right near the ‘gate of heaven’, and in response he carries out a simply liturgical action which has the effect of marking and dedicating this special place, which was to become a significant, though not always wholesome, spiritual site.

We live in a time where, as John 1:51 suggests, access to the heavenly realms is not through a bottleneck but through Jesus himself (the Greek construction suggests that the Son of Man is the ladder, not the one descended upon). No doubt there do exist ‘thin places’ of particular holiness, but thank God that access to him is not limited to them. We live in a time where God still supernaturally meets people, and not always holy people, with his grace. A good test of whether a so-called spiritual experience in genuinely from God is to see whether he communicates grace or condemnation: the pattern here is grace and blessing through and through. Should we pray for such encounters with God? I don’t think it hurts, as long as we focus not on experiences but on the God who sometimes graciously gives them.

OT Lectionary 11th May Easter 4 Genesis 7

The Noah’s Ark cycle, beloved of Sunday School children and Hollywood alike, faces us with some profound theological dilemmas. The story actually begins in chapter 6, where God looks at the state of the world he made, and is so deeply disturbed by what he sees that he regrets having made it in the first place. There’s your first dilemma – how can the all-knowing God regret anything? Has it all taken him by surprise? Then comes his decision to act on his dismay by destroying everything he has made. Does it mean that God has lost control of his creation, and that the only way to stop the spiralling evil is total annihilation? Clearly not: there are two things here which can help us make sense of the story. First of all is God’s deep grief. In Gen 6:6 we’re told that God is deeply troubled, not that he was livid with anger. His actions may seem those of someone who is fuming at the injustice of it all, but the text paints a different picture. This is more about salvation than judgement. You get the same thing a few verses earlier in 6:3: God’s limiting of the stretch of human life is an act of mercy, otherwise we’d all be caught in an eternity of evil and strife, which is very different from the eternity of peace and harmony which was his intention for the human race. So here, God’s destruction of evil has behind it the intention of saving the human race from sin. The only problem is that sin doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it requires sinners. You can’t stop sin without stopping people doing it.

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But then there is the motif of mercy. This is not an angry act of vengeance by a peeved despot. God looks around, and he spots Noah. He is different. He really is trying to live in righteous and godly ways. There is someone undeserving of punishment, someone who can provide a new start for the human race. So Noah is called to be the captain of the boat which will sail into the new world, and through whom humans can be saved.

One of the reasons, I believe, that this story is so difficult for us once you get beyond the Sunday School models of little animals, is that in so many ways it subverts our culture’s understanding of God, life, the universe and everything. We don’t like a God who destroys stuff, even if it isn’t in anger (which frankly isn’t that convincing – it looks like anger to us!) We don’t think that Noah could really be that much better than anyone else, and we don’t hold with his family being lumped together with him: surely it’s about our individual response to God? In so many ways this story is counter cultural, but if we can get beyond our outrage it can nevertheless speak to us.

It speaks about the seriousness of sin and evil to a tolerant age. It speaks about a compassionate God in an age where we don’t like him doing anything nasty. It tells us that God thinks ‘corporate’ when we instinctively think ‘individual’. It teaches us that while God may not be big on ‘animal rights’ (I’m not convinced that animals have any rights, lacking as they do any responsibility), he still cares enough about his creation to save those which have no use as food. And it speaks of a God who desires not the death of a sinner, and will look around for those who are righteous, but will not shrink from destroying those who seem bent on destroying others and themselves. All this is deeply unpopular to our way of thinking, but I believe it is what the text says. And next week, of course, we’ll get the happy ending.

OT Lectionary May 4th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14 – 20

Zephaniah 1:1 tells us that this prophecy dates from the reign of King Josiah, which would place it in the early 600s BC, and therefore before the Babylonian exile. This certainly fits with the earlier chapters of the book, which are full of dire warnings to the Israelites of the coming judgement when God the Mighty Warrior will turn on them and give them the come-uppance they so richly deserve for their opulent and profane lifestyles. But then at 3:14 there is an abrupt change of tone: suddenly the people are called to rejoice and celebrate because God has commuted their punishment, defeated their oppressors and purified their nation.

As with the book of Isaiah, which we have looked at previously in this blog, it does seem likely that the final paragraphs are later additions, the happy ending written much later towards the end of or after the judgement and purification of the exile. It would rather seem to undermine the prophet’s message of warning if he went on to tell the people that it was all going to end up fine. Neither, as history clearly tells us, was it the case that the restoration happened before the punishment, or instead of it. It was only through the experience of abandonment and punishment that Israel could learn her lesson and step back into God’s favour.

As a post-Easter reading this seems to speak to us of cheap grace. The salvation of the human race, whilst it had always been God’s plan, didn’t happen without judgement or punishment. It was only through the cross that we could be restored to our inheritance as God’s people. I have often said to different congregations, whilst talking about that greatest of post-modern virtues ‘tolerance’, that God is not tolerant; he is forgiving, and there is all the difference in the world between those two concepts.

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But once we have been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, just look at the scenario which Zephaniah paints for us! Once the Mighty Warrior is for you rather than against you, there is no need for fear, no room for oppression, no call for dishonour or shame. When the one who was fighting against you because you were living against him starts singing songs of joy over you as a beloved daughter, you know something dramatic has happened. In the past it took a generation or more of exile: in Christ it took three days. Hallelujah – what a Saviour!

So often when we come to worship we see ourselves as in some way putting on a performance which we hope God will enjoy. This passage helps us to see things differently. In a most un-Anglican way God is seen singing, shouting, delighting, rejoicing. He may even have put his arms in the air like a good charismatic: who knows? The really good news is that we are invited to join in. He is not in the audience holding up cards with numbers on to assess our attempts at worship: he is partying with all he’s got, and inviting us to the party too.

OT Lectionary 27th April Easter 2 Ex 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’

Let’s be honest: it does go against the grain a bit to celebrate death. We’re all jolly glad that the poor enslaved Israelites have managed to escape from that nasty Pharaoh, but was it really necessary to end the business with a mass drowning? In the past victories in battle were celebrated with great jubilation. But nowadays we’ve reached perhaps more enlightened times when we understand that warfare actually has no victors: the whole business is destructive too all concerned, and the slaughter of those whom we perceive to be our enemies, along no doubt with some ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders, is hardly something to make a song and dance about. So what are we to make of today’s OT, where we see the death of the Egyptians as a necessary concomitant of the liberation of Israel, and an outbreak of jubilant praise by Miriam and the girls.

 

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Indeed this is a problem for other parts of the OT. In 40 years’ time the Israelites are going to arrive finally at the Land promised to them by God, and they are going to be instructed to wipe out all the inhabitants unmercifully. The fact that they fail to do so, and are therefore nicer than God is, is going to get them into all kinds of trouble, according to the OT storytellers. So how do we cope with the destruction of enemies in the Scriptures, and what might it all mean for us today?

I think there are two approaches we might make to this problem, the individual and the spiritual. First of all it seems to be a natural law that whenever there are winners there are also losers. Egypt had so frequently and so deliberately hardened its corporate heart against God, who had given them so many opportunities to obey him, that they had forced themselves into a position where the only way for Israel to win her liberation was through their defeat. Pharaoh could at any point have compromised or even just given in, but he refused to do so, and the nation bore the consequences. (Of course the fate of individual soldiers who were ‘just obeying orders’ is of no interest to the OT writers who were untainted by enlightenment individualism and always thought ‘corporate’.) I think there’s something here about both the power of national leadership to affect the well-being (or otherwise) of the whole nation, and the responsibility of people to make sure they’re on the right side. Actions have consequences, and to align ourselves with evil means that we pay the piper sooner or later. Egypt paid that price, and after giving them so many chances to change their position of fixed opposition to him, God can hardly be blamed for punishing them. Indeed he reaches the point where we’re told he ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’, realising this is going nowhere so let’s just get it over with. The same is true of the genocide at the time of the conquest: the Bible’s take on this is that it wasn’t that Israel was holy, but that the Canaanite nations were so offensive to God and richly deserved their come-uppance (Deut 9:5). Where we place ourselves, the way we live, to whom we are aligned, matters. No excuses.

But secondly the choice of this reading during Easter suggests the link with cross and resurrection. Again there can be no victory without someone else’s defeat, and John’s gospel particularly makes the point that Christ’s death on the cross was also the crowning of a victorious king, with the powers of darkness defeated, until that final day when they will be destroyed. Evil isn’t just human: behind it are the spiritual forces of darkness in the spiritual realms, and on them God will have no mercy. So to celebrate our salvation through the cross is at the same time to celebrate the defeat of all that is evil, and of those who have given their lives to perpetuating it. So maybe we should get those tambourines out after all, as long as we remember to pray for those unwittingly caught up in the pursuit of evil: ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t understand what they’re doing’.

OT Lectionary April 20th Easter Sunday Exodus 14:10 – 31, 15:20-21

Just as the Passover has symbolised for Christians the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, so the crossing of the Red Sea has symbolised resurrection and deliverance. The links with water are important in Christian baptism, and as with Maundy Thursday and the Passover we have today a rich vein of symbolism as we celebrate today the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the grave.

The starting point of the story is the sheer hopelessness of the Israelites’ situation. With the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind, they quite literally have nowhere to go. There simply is no human solution to their problem: what is needed is nothing short of a miracle. But God is a God of miracles, and so just as it is needed, one is provided. The sea opens, and they are free. In fact they are a lot freer than they expect as those who would kill or recapture them are drowned in the very waters which have parted to allow them the road to freedom.

 

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One of my more memorable sermons, about Mars Bars and Lifebelts, asks the question ‘How do you understand your salvation?’ Many Christians see their relationship with God as a bit like if I were to give them a Mars Bar. Most of them would be really grateful to me (apart from once when I chose a member of the congregation who was allergic to chocolate, but that was just an unfortunate pick on my part). But if instead of my giving them a Mars I had given them a lifebelt just as they were drowning, they would be more than merely grateful: they would quite literally own me their life. Jesus doesn’t just come along to make our quite nice days even better with a little gift called ‘salvation’: he quite literally provides a miraculous rescue for those who without him would remain dead in their sins. What we need to save us is nothing short of a miracle: the rising of Jesus from death, when we had nothing in ourselves to save ourselves, is that miracle.

Exodus 14 also encourages us to hope for a miracle when all looks hopeless. The famous words in verse 13 ring down the ages to all who face impossible situations: ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you’. Our instinct is so often to rush around trying to sort out our own problems: God is the God both of the 11th hour and of those who can hold onto their trust in him with quiet faith.

Another motif is the glorification of God through this mighty miracle. ‘The Egyptians will know that I am God’ says the Lord to Moses, although in the event they won’t know it for very long before the sea gets them. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates him, and his Father, before the world which has hounded and condemned him. It is in the nature of judgement that there will be those who realise the truth too late: Revelation 1:7 talks about the mourning of those who had pierced Jesus but them seen him gloriously vindicated as he comes in glory. The celebrations of this greatest day of the Christian year also have a bittersweet flavour as we are reminded of the urgency of the task of telling others about Christ’s victory.