Old Testament Lectionary 13th September Trinity 15 Isaiah 50:4-9a

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

The themes of recognition and rejection shine through today’s gospel, from the end of Mark 7. These themes are well illustrated by our Isaiah passage. ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, the unknown prophet who spoke of the people’s release from Babylonian exile and their return to their homeland several times identifies the nation as God’s Servant, the idealised Jewish community who will carry out God’s will in addressing all nations with the news of his greatness and universal reign. In this passage he puts words into the mouth of that Servant, expressing on the people’s behalf something of that nature of that calling. There is much here from which church may learn, struggling as we are with our own calling in an age of increasing marginalisation. In a nutshell, the prophet tells them that God equips them, that opposition will be fierce, and that God’s final vindication will be sure.

The servant first of all is hungry for the voice of God. He knows what it is to hear from him, on a daily basis, and he understands that he has nothing to teach or speak if he has learnt nothing. We live in a time, as did Eli, when the word of the Lord is rare. Many Christians simply do not have any expectation that God will speak to them, few read the Word with any regularity, few expect the voice of the Lord to come to them through preaching or liturgy. In many church services where the Bible is read publicly, there is simply no expectation that people will have Bibles or want to follow. No wonder we have so little voice, and nothing to say to a confused world when we are not regularly being taught by God.

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This servant, however, does have things to say, but he realises that to say them will bring opposition. We’re not told from whom this opposition comes, but we know from experience that often it comes from the very people who are supposed to be, as it were, on our side. I love the definition of a leader as ‘one who defines reality’, but I also know only too well that to try to do this to people who would rather continue in happy fantasy can result in the ‘shoot the messenger’ syndrome. The images used of this opposition and punishment are from the world of public shaming: the beater stands above and behind the beaten in a position of power, and the removal of the beard, symbolising manhood, is about opening the victim to public shaming. Enemies do not play nicely!

But they will not have the last word. There is a combination of human determination and resilience (v 7b) and divine vindicating power (v 8-9) which mean that his will and purposes will ultimately prevail, even if to get there hurts. We’re still waiting, of course, for God’s final purposes for creation to be fulfilled, but the way we wait is important. We wait on tiptoe, we wait as those who know the last page of the story, and therefore we wait with resilience and with the truths of God on our lips.

Reflections on Discipleship – Taking up our Cross

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 …

 

‘If you want to be my disciple’, Jesus told his followers, ‘you have to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me’. What better day than Good Friday to think about discipleship in these terms? If you have watched the controversial Passion of the Christ you will have seen one person’s suggestions about the extreme nature of the suffering Jesus went through for love of the human race. It does not make comfortable viewing, and it challenges the sanitised ideas we have about crucifixion. Of course we know it must have hurt, but we prefer not to think about just how much. So why did Jesus use the picture of a cross to describe discipleship? Is it really meant to be that awful following him?

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First let’s clear up one misunderstanding. In common parlance our ‘cross to bear’ means some unfortunate circumstance with which we feel our life to have been blighted, anything from a bad back to a nasty mother-in-law. This is manifestly not what Jesus is talking about. We ‘take up’ our cross, not have it bonked down upon us by fate or circumstance. A cross is something we choose, not something we’re stuck with. Martin Luther King chose, at great personal cost, to speak up for persecuted black people in the USA. It led him to vilification, attack and finally martyrdom. Countless others throughout history have deliberately chosen to go down the more difficult path, knowing it could, and often would, lead to their death. At any moment they could presumably have chosen to lay down the cross and walk away to safety, but they didn’t. They walked that path to the end. And that is discipleship. It’s our choice.

Of course, while discipleship often has been so extreme as to lead to death, it needn’t. It might be small things. I once worked in a warehouse where the lads would greet visiting drivers, take them off to the canteen and get them a cup of tea while the rest of the gang ransacked the back of the truck looking for anything worth nicking. They didn’t kill me because I refused to join in, but I wasn’t flavour of the month. Maybe we make a stand in our community against some injustice, whistle-blow at work, enforce Christian standards among our kids, sign a petition saying that gay marriage is not just what our country needs right now, or refuse to fiddle our expenses. But we do what we do because we believe in something worth fighting for. Or alternatively we keep quiet, merge into the crowd, and save our reputations. It’s up to us what, if anything, we feel strongly about.

That’s the thing about following Jesus – he always gives us space. He makes the highest of demands, but understands if we don’t choose to rise to the challenge, and keeps the door open until we decide to go his way. Like so many others he paid the ultimate price for his obedience to the Father, but as the forerunner of others he showed that even discipleship to the point of death isn’t terminal.

“Madero de Tormento” by Rubén Betanzo S. – Mi PC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg#/media/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Esther

The book of Esther has three claims to fame: it contains the longest verse in the Bible (8:9), it is never referred to elsewhere in Scripture, and it never once mentions God. So what is it doing here?

If we mean by that question ‘what is it doing here’, the answer is that it tells the story of Esther, who became a Persian queen around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, so as we found with the book of Ruth, this seemed like the most sensible slot for it in the Bible. But at another level it is in the Bible at all because it is an aetiology, that is a story told to explain a present reality. Kipling’s Just So Stories are examples of aetiologies – we see that elephants have long trunks, so here’s why. In this case the reality was that Jews saw that they kept an annual festival called Purim, and wanted to know why, and how the tradition got started, so the story of Esther was told in order to provide that background. And it’s a bit more historical than Kipling’s tales: the author is at pains to assure us of its historicity, and to date it for us (1:1, 2:23, 9:32).

The story goes like this: King Xerxes has had a few pints too many during a 180 day bender, and commands his beautiful wife Vashti to show herself off before his nobles, wearing her royal crown: probably only her royal crown. She refuses, is banished from his presence, and needs replacing, so a search is made and a beautiful Jewess wins the privilege of becoming queen. In spite of the strong tradition that intermarriage is not allowed, she has no choice, and is told not to let the king know of her nationality. Later her cousin Mordecai overhears a plot to assassinate the king, which Esther reports to him, saving his life.

Haman is an official in the court who is raised to high position, but Mordecai refuses to pay him the honour he expects. Haman decided that in retaliation he would try to wipe out all the Jews, and not just Mordecai. Risking her life Esther approaches the king to plead for her people. Usually she would not venture into his presence from the harem unless called for, but she takes the risky initiative and invites the king to a banquet. Meanwhile the king can’t sleep and tries to drop off by reading the court records, obviously the Persian equivalent of counting sheep. He discovers that Mordecai previously saved his life, but has not been rewarded. Haman becomes even more jealous.

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Finally Esther gets to present her petition, for the protection of the Jews, to the king, and tells him of the plot to wipe them out. The king is shocked and asks who could think of such a thing. Haman is identified, and ends up being impaled on a spike he had prepared specially for Mordecai. The king pronounces an edict of protection for the Jews, and amidst great celebrations other enemies are finished off and the feast of Purim is established as a remembrance of the Jews’ deliverance from their enemies. Purim were apparently stones with numbers on, rather like dice, which were used to choose dates at ‘random’.

So what do we do with this entertaining story today? It is about trusting (usually with hindsight) that God has put us in the right place at the right time. It is about risky living for righteousness and justice, and it about thankfulness and celebration, or ‘counting our blessings’ for God’s hand on our lives in the past. In a time when in some parts of the world Christians are being systematically executed in the hope of total eradication, it is a call to prayer and intercession for God’s people, and for the confusion of all those who wish them harm.

OT Lectionary April 13th Palm Sunday Isaiah 50:4-9a

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As we enter Holy Week we are looking at some particularly New Testament stories as we walk through the week with Jesus and reflect on some of the events of these fateful days. But in spite of this the OT readings can help illuminate the narrative, and give greater understanding to those seeking to travel the way of the cross.
Our first passage is from one of Isaiah’s ‘Servant Songs’ which we have encountered before in this series. We’ve discussed just whom the ‘Servant’ is, and said that most likely he represents the Israelite community, not as it actually was in the 6th century, but in an idealised way: this is what Israel would be like if it was perfectly living out its vocation as the nation chosen by God to make him known to all the other nations of the world. So the first thing which strikes us, and we’re going to see this even more clearly before this week is out, is that God’s calling involves suffering. We so often live with the sense that if we were really really in the centre of God’s will life would be great: indeed much of the OT tells us precisely that that’s how it should be. Yet the Servant Songs give the lie to this: to live in obedience to God is to suffer, as so many Christians have found out. Beating, mocking, spitting: these are the daily currency of Christians in many parts of our world, reminding us of the Jesus who said that he had come not to bring peace, but rather the sword, representing conflict. As we journey through Holy Week the conflict becomes steadily more overt, and culminates, of course, on the cross.
Yet like the Servant whose ministry is perfected in him, Jesus faces his calling with determination and confidence. He knows that the Sovereign God helps him, so he grits his teeth and goes onward, knowing that there will be vindication, and that all those who have so violently opposed him will be proved wrong once and for all. ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’ might be a translation, albeit a bit approximate, of v 8b. And have a go they do, but even death can’t keep him down. The Sovereign Lord has the last word.
I think we sometimes go through Holy Week with the kind of attitude which realises how terrible it all was for Jesus, but thanks God or its lucky stars that he did it instead of us. Isaiah would remind us, perhaps, at the start of the week that this kind of suffering is not exceptional. It is the reality for many Christians, and it ought perhaps to be ours. Certainly we are promised no immunity, and to walk Holy Week with our faces set like flint to obey God come what may might just give a sobering jolt to our British consumerist, comfort-driven faith.