Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Joel

Hosea and his other chums among the minor prophets are easy to date, but Joel is harder. The main story is about the nation being attacked by a locust plague so devastating that to the prophet it feels as though the apocalypse has started. You can see why, with the sun blocked out across the land, vegetation completely destroyed (and remember that this isn’t just about food now, it’s also about seeds for next year), and relentless armies still coming. What is unclear, though, is whether this was an actual physical plague or one merely seen in a vision or dream. Sadly history tells us nothing which would help us to locate this plague in a particular era, and scholarly opinion as to the dating ranges for several centuries from the 9th to the 2nd.

However, the message of Joel is not dependent on us getting the date exactly right. With prophetic insight he saw this plague of locusts as a picture of the coming judgement of God on an apostate nation, judgement which would be equally severe and all-encompassing. But he not just a messenger of doom: he suggested practical action which could avert the disaster, and he saw beyond it to future hope for a repentant people.

Swarm of Locants

The first two chapters alternate between descriptions of the tragedy and calls to penitence. The first account of the locust-storm describes its effect on the land and its produce, but ends in v 12 with a deeper interpretation: the withered land is also a picture of the withered hearts of the people. Drunkards are called to weep because there will be nothing more form them to drink, but the more serious call to action is aimed at the priests, whose responsibility is twofold: to cry to God in penitential and desperate prayer, and to summon the people to do the same. This is priestly ministry indeed, as they stand between the people and God to intercede for them, but so great is the disaster that the people too must tear open their hearts in shame and fervent prayer.

In chapter 2 there is a further description of the locusts, but now they have taken on a much more sinister and apocalyptic look, as they are painted as a great conquering army, leaving not just devastation but also fire in their wake. What is worse, it is the Lord himself who is leading them in their mission of punishment.

The solution, then, is radical and heartfelt penitence, but in somewhat agnostic fashion the prophet suggests that there might just be hope (v 14). But in 2:18 the Lord indeed responds, and promises not just physical restoration of the land and its crops, but also a spiritual harvest, in the purple passage from this book, which was seen by Peter and the others on the day of Pentecost as a prediction of the coming of the Spirit.

But Joel’s vision is even more far-reaching, and chapter 3 looks to the final judgement of all people, when those who have remained faithful as God’s people will be rewarded with a bountiful land while those who have acted against Israel will be punished and devastated.

Joel’s words are challenging on many levels, but as a priest I find his call to take the lead in intercession and penitence very significant. The problem may be, though, that as a nation on one level we have not been threatened with the level of disaster which the locusts, real or spiritual, brought with them. We shall see next week that our land is in a place much closer to that of Amos’ time, when self-satisfaction rather than fear is the predominant mood. Far be it from me to hope for a national disaster, but there is no doubt that it would certainly focus the mind, and hopefully the prayer too.

Image: By Iwoelbern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship – Praying with the Psalms

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

You know those moments when you get a sudden flash of insight, when you get for the first time something which you then realise is blindingly obvious? I had one of those moments when a visiting preacher came to the church of which I was vicar. It was this time of year, in the gap between Ascension and Pentecost, and our diocese was encouraging us to use what is called the ‘Novena’ or nine days to pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to renew and revive the church. In a throwaway comment our preacher told us that of course the disciples gathered for that period in the upper room would have been praying the Psalms. That was how Jews prayed.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maestà (back, crowning panel) The Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Now I’d never really thought about it but I realised that the unconscious picture in the back of my mind was nine days of a kind of evangelical prayer-meeting, or a 24-7 prayer week. But since that insight I’ve found myself viewing the Psalms in a whole new light. We all know that they contain pretty much the full range of human situations and emotions, and they can give us words to express just about anything we’re feeling and wanting to say to God. I know that during a period of my life when I was under intense persecution and bullying those psalms about smashing my enemies to bits became very real and heartfelt. They certainly gave me permission to feel what I was feeling! The fact is that we read and pray the psalms through the filter of what we’re going through or thinking about at the time. So to read them during the novena, as prayers for the renewal and revival of God’s church, can be a very helpful and powerful thing.

Of course some psalms are more applicable than others to any given situation, but I think the dynamic is that the bits which speak to us come out of the page and thump us in the face, while the other bits slip quietly by until another occasion when because of a new situation they will speak to us.

So how about thinking yourself into the situation of those first disciples, gathered with both fear and expectation, not knowing quite what to expect but hopeful of something new and powerful? Link that to your situation now, admitting how you feel about the state of the church and your hopes for it. Then start reading some psalms, either from the beginning, or using the passages set in the lectionary. At the end of each psalm, or when something leaps out and hits you, ask yourself the question ‘How does this text make me want to pray for the church?’ My expectation is that prayer will come alive, and my hope is that like those first disciples we will know the powerful presence of the Spirit among us as we pray.

Image from http://www.abcgallery.com

OT Lectionary May 17th Sunday after Ascension Ezekiel 36:24-28

The days between the Ascension and Pentecost are increasingly being marked in the Anglican church as a novena, or nine days, of prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Better late than never, I suppose, but as we seek to reflect and live out that period of prayer to which the first believers devoted themselves I sometimes wonder what we are expecting to happen. How will we know when the Holy Spirit has come? I reckon that when tongues of fire and strange languages broke out among them on the day of Pentecost it wasn’t just the onlookers who were amazed and perplexed. I’m sure the believers got more than they were bargaining for.

Grão Vasco, Pentecostes, da capela da portaria do mosteiro de Santa Cruz de Coimbra, 1534-35, assinada Velasco.jpg

So we seek to sanitise the Holy Spirit. I can remember being part of a team planning a children’s Pentecost celebration in our cathedral, at which it was suggested that we might cut out thousands of little red, yellow and orange bits of sparkly paper and drop them from the roof onto the children gathered below, and set up some huge fans to blow everyone around. Having just written a book on how children can receive the Spirit and his gifts as well as adults can, I suggested that we might just pray for the children to be filled with the Spirit, a suggestion which went down like air con in an igloo. Symbolism is much safer if it protects us from the real thing. We want the Spirit, but we don’t want to be charismatic, for goodness’ sake!

So apart from tongues, what might praying for the coming of the Spirit result in? Ezekiel has a slightly different take, although one which potentially might be equally disturbing. This text is aimed at those languishing in Babylonian exile as a result of their idolatry, and as God puts his Spirit in them they can expect a radical turnaround. The ‘before’ picture is one of scattered people, far from home, with hard hearts, filthy from their rubbing up against detestable idols, the sort, for example, to which you sacrifice your own children. But the gift of the Spirit will bring homecoming, cleansing, a heart transplant, and a restoration of their relationship with God. So radical will this U turn be that people will even want to keep God’s laws, rather than regarding them as a bit of a killjoy nuisance.

Ezekiel’s vision of the work of the Spirit is essentially a moral one, after which polluted and compromised people will not only behave themselves but will even want to behave themselves. The naughty delight in sin will lose its appeal for them, and they will be 100% devoted to God.

So for what do we think we’re praying as we seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s church? Spectacular gifts? More position and power in today’s society? The ability better to serve the needs of our communities? More bums on seats? Ezekiel would tell us that God has different priorities, although none of the above is a bad thing for which to pray. Essentially, says Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit is in the business of bringing holiness. If you’re the kind of Christian who sort of enjoys a bit of sin now and again, and believes that God isn’t that bothered, be careful what you pray!

Preaching the OT Advent 2 Isaiah 11:1-10

Sunday Dec 8th Advent 2

Is 11:1-10

File:Advent wreath 4.jpg

 

Like Advent itself OT prophecy often has more than one focus and fulfilment. I can remember in the early days of charismatic renewal the passage from Joel 2 about God pouring our his Spirit was much bandied around. We could explain the current wave of phenomena by looking back to the prophecy and saying ‘This is that’ which was spoken by the prophet. Yet that was exactly what the Apostles said on the Day of Pentecost to explain what was going on. Clearly Pentecost was the fulfilment of Joel 2, but it didn’t exhaust its meaning, and much later generations could claim that what they were seeing was exactly what Joel had foretold. (There’s a great PhD for someone – the history of interpretation of Joel 2:28-32.)

This passage from Isaiah also seems to have that (at least) dual focus. It begins sounding suspiciously like one of the famous ‘Servant Songs’ which appear later. It suggests that someone (or some renewed nation, or some faithful remnant …) will appear to work on God’s agenda for the world, empowered by his Spirit. But then there is a leap in the logic, and no doubt the chronology, to that time when nature itself will have been renewed, as manifested by the lack of desire to eat each other. Whilst the church has understood the first bit as having been fulfilled by Jesus (indeed passages like this must have informed Jesus’ self-understanding as he read them whilst growing up), we clearly can’t claim that as a result of the incarnation it’s safe to let your kids play in the snake pit or the lion’s cage. During Advent we telescope different results of the coming of Christ into a multi-layered celebration, just as this passage does.

But the real question is what we do about it. This passage invites our gaze to fall on the distant horizon as well as the immediate situation. It inspires us with a future vision, but it also has a moral dimension to it. If we are to be working with the coming King, to whom as in last week the nations will one day stream, then we have to be engaged in his work now, for the needy and broken and against wickedness and injustice.

There are two equal and opposite errors which beset the Christian church. One is to sit and wait (prayerfully, of course) for God to come and sort our world out for us, smash the baddies and distribute harps and clouds. The other is to believe that by our own efforts we can sort out all the problems of the world. There is much we can do, but we look for the time when God himself will appear and complete fully what we have tried partially to do. Isaiah encourages us to resist both these temptations. In the words of the Advent Sunday postcommunion:

… make us watchful and keep us faithful …
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise.

I’ll be thinking further about this in my new Wednesday blog starting this week: What is church for? #whatschurchfor