Old Testament Lectionary 19th July Trinity 7 Jeremiah 23:1-6

 

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

The motif of God himself stepping in to care for his people because of the lack of care given by their earthly ‘shepherds’ is not an uncommon one in the OT. Ezekiel notably uses this image in chapter 34. Clearly a metaphor for the kings and rulers of the nation, the shepherds have failed to administer justice or rescue the oppressed and the victims of crime (21:12). Instead they have their hearts set on dishonest gain, oppression and bloodshed (22:17). Therefore God is going to do two things: he is going to step in and shepherd his people himself, and make a proper job of it, but he is also going to raise up a new king who will do what is just and right (23:5). It is not clear whether this will be as well as God’s own care for the people, or after it, or even whether God’s personal ministry will be exercised through this new Davidic king, whom of course we know to be his Son, and whose ministry the gospel reading for today picks up, as he ministers to sheep who have no shepherd at all.

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But what is going to happen in the meantime? Clearly in context Jeremiah is writing on the eve of the Babylonian exile, and in this passage he explains, somewhat confusingly, that it is the false shepherds who have ‘scattered’ the people into exile, (v 2), but also that it is God who has done the scattering (v 3) and will also do the re-gathering. This raises an interesting question about the exile, and about our own experiences of suffering and abandonment. When in my other blog I discussed Jonah, I made the point that the whale wasn’t punishment for Jonah: it was rescue, unpleasant and scary though that rescue may have been. Is it possible, therefore, that the exile was less a punishment on the oppressed people, and more a rescue from their oppressors? It is certainly the case that after the exile the monarchy never functioned in the ways it had before: this was real and radical regime change, and it may have been the case that the old system needed not just breaking but destroying totally in order that something more functional could replace it.

Of course there are many other references to the culpability of the ordinary people and their punishment through the exile, but maybe it doesn’t have to be one or the other. When disaster hits us it is a common reaction to ask the question ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ and in some cases there will be a clear answer to that question. But I wonder whether another question, equally valid, might be to ask ‘From what or whom is this going to save me?’ Only this last week I was surprised to hear myself in prayer giving thanks to God for one of the greatest disappointments of my life, because it saved me from what would have ended up as a disastrous career move. Maybe there are things which you can see in the same way. And maybe, like me, you can find new hope and faith in the fact that God’s plans are perfect, painful though they may be at the time.

Image: “Renderklippen 058” by Koosg – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Renderklippen_058.JPG#/media/File:Renderklippen_058.JPG

Old Testament Lectionary June 28th Trinity 4 Lamentations 3:23-33

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

Being quite keen on the proper Bible I’ve chosen the Lamentations option, the one key purple passage in the book which I have discussed further here. It’s a great passage, standing proud like a lighthouse on the dark stormy seas of the rest of the book, and there is much encouragement to be had from it, but I found myself more interested on this occasion in the later verses, from v 25 onwards, and the advice it gives to suffering Christians.

This mini-section begins with the idea that God’s people (‘those whose hope is in him’) have a God who is basically good to them, although of course it doesn’t always feel like that. Therefore, in holding these two paradoxical truths together, we have to ‘bear the yoke’ and to ‘wait quietly’. It gets worse: we have to sit in silence, remembering that this is in fact God doing all this to them, and to ‘bury our faces in the dust’ in case there is any hope.

This language is uncannily reminiscent of Job’s comforters, and, whilst it reflects Israel’s Wisdom tradition, is in the end rejected by Job in favour of an inscrutable God who has the right to do whatever he likes. Indeed, reiterates the author here, it is God who causes suffering, though he doesn’t do it for fun, and he always mixes it with compassion, because that’s who he is. So are we any the wiser?

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As always it will probably help us to set this passage in its historical context, so that we don’t try to make it say something to us which it never intended to say. Stuff it tells us about God is probably reliable, but not necessarily that which it says about our reaction. So let’s go back to the final days before the exile, when the Holy City has been devastated, God’s punishment on an apostate nation has been wreaked, and people are left in despair. So what do we do now?

Well, the author says, the time for penitence in the hope that God will let you off the hook is over. You had every opportunity to turn back to him, but you didn’t, and now there is no way of undoing the punishment which he warned you would come upon you. Your only hope now is to suck it up, keep your heads down and wait. You can be sure that the God who has brought this punishment on you will temper it with compassion, but you will have to sit through it. God would have loved to have seen you repent and therefore avoid this catastrophe, but you weren’t interested, so now you have to take what was coming to you.

This does, I think, put the words in one particular historical setting, and it also sets us free from believing that they apply directly to us today. They underline the importance of reading carefully, of not making blanket transfers down the years and across the miles, and of asking deeper questions about what from here we can take as truth for us today.

We have a God of compassion, but also a God of punishment (I have often said, in the face of our society’s valuing of ‘tolerance’ above all virtues, that God is not tolerant: he’s forgiving, which is a very different thing). He doesn’t enjoy putting people through hard times, but he understands when it is necessary. And, we know from our perspective the other side of the cross, that there is after all the chance to escape punishment, because his Son took it for us. This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

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

OT Lectionary Sunday 13th September Trinity 13 Genesis 50:15-21

 

Two words can sum up the thrust of today’s OT passage: grace and mercy. Joseph’s brothers, those who left him half-dead and then sold him into slavery, are worried because now that Dad has died the respect which Joseph has had for him might run out and he might wreak an awful revenge on them from his position of power. So, whether out of fear for their lives or genuine repentance (it’s hard to tell which from the text – maybe it was a mixture of both) they grovel before him asking that he will forgive them. Joseph’s response shows both grace and mercy, but something else besides which we will come to in a minute.

And old children’s song helpfully tells us that

‘Grace is when God gives us/the things we don’t deserve’

and

‘Mercy is when God does not/give us what we deserve’

Joseph shows both to his brothers, putting away their sins against him, and promising to provide for them into the future. It would be interesting to speculate just what his tears in v 17 were about. Gratitude that they had finally apologised to him? Horror that they should think him capable of such revenge? Maybe, but I wonder also whether his tears were about glimpsing the bigger picture. Showing grace and mercy are human activities, and very good ones too, but behind it all Joseph is able to see the hand of a loving and powerful God.

He has already made the point, in chapter 45, that what they intended as harm for him was used by God to a greater purpose. He repeats the point here, as evidence that to take the path of revenge would be to go counter to God’s larger purposes. I think there is something here for those of us who suffer, and something for those who must forgive.

Let’s begin with forgiveness. I have written elsewhere[i] about an important paper on the nature of forgiveness, so I won’t repeat is here. but I am interested that Joseph does three things. He looks their sin fair and square in the face and calls it what it is – ‘You intended to harm me’ v 20. No excuses: he tells it like it is. Secondly he refuses to take revenge, even though it was well within his power to do so. The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have heard is ‘Handing back to God the right to punish those who have hurt us’. Most of our angst and bitterness comes from the fact that we would like to take revenge ourselves, but most of the time we don’t have the ability to. To give back to God the right to punish sets us free from all that agonised bitterness.

But then Joseph goes one step further: he ‘spoke kindly to them’ v 21. Much of the time this is a step too far. We can forgive people, if we use the definition above, without having to trust them, or even to like them. Much of the time the wisest way is simply to avoid them. But Joseph somehow manages to maintain relationship with those who were so cruel to him.

I think that third step is optional, so don’t beat yourself up if you simply can’t be around those who have hurt you so much. However, the first two are essential.

And once we gain the perspective which comes from having genuinely forgiven, that makes it easier to seek God’s larger purposes. I know how much this hurt, but what did God give me, or build into me through it. what is there, in the harm intended by others, which he has turned to his purposes?

[i] Leach, J God’s Upgrades … My Adventures (Milton Keynes: Authentic, 2014) p 168ff.

 

Coming soon – my new Wednesday blog ‘Through the Bible in Just Over a Year’ – 600 words introducing each book of the Bible, and how we might read it today as Christian disciples.