Old Testament Lectionary May 24th Pentecost Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

Whichever way you cut it, Pentecost is a weird festival at which to preach. Unless, of course, you’re a charismatic, in which case you know exactly what it’s all about, and all you have to tiptoe quietly past is the flames on people’s heads. Preachers will have to think carefully about what they believe happened then, and what that says about what might happen now.

Good charismatics will know, though, that our emphasis ought not to be on weird phenomena, but on the fruit of those phenomena in the lives of individual disciples and of the church. Here Ezekiel can help us a bit, because this passage is clearly about the renewal of God’s people. In context it dates from the time of Israel’s exile, and the passage contains elements of two Hebrew literary forms. The first, which paradoxically comes towards the end of the passage, is that of corporate lament. ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone’, the people are saying as they languish in exile, despairing of ever seeing home again. These sentiments are echoed regularly elsewhere in Ezekiel. So the prophetic oracle of salvation which forms the remainder of the passage is a response to the misery of the people, and picks up exactly the symbolism of bones, which in Hebrew thought represents the very core of our being, rather as we might say in cold weather that we are ‘frozen to the bone’.

Drynobas

But the key symbol here is that based on the Hebrew word ruach which translates as either wind, breath or spirit. The word is emphasised by its repeated use, and the swapping between the latter two meanings. This is a passage all about God’s Spirit, and his ability to bring new life out of dead and hopeless situations.

The OT is of course full of promises about and comings of the Spirit, but they are usually only temporary as God equips people at odd times for specific tasks. But as we move through the story there are greater hints of permanence, which is of course the key to Pentecost, where the Spirit is given to anoint individuals and grow the church. Peter on the day of Pentecost makes the link with Joel 2, but several other OT passages are seen to be fulfilled at the same time.

As a church leader I am particularly interested in the two-stage process by which the bones come to life. I know that it is relatively easy to get skeletons walking around. Churches need structure and systems, admin, visions and goals, all the stuff of which business management is made. But the next step is for those skeletons to become living organisms, and that can only happen through the Spirit of God, who, of course, as at Pentecost, is given as a result of God’s promise and the people’s prayer. Great leadership and spectacular admin can take a church so far, but only prayer can invite the Spirit of God to bring it fully to life.

Old Testament Lectionary Feb 15th Sunday before Lent 2 Kings 2:1-12

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

A commentary I read on today’s OT passage suggests that it is a story of boundary-crossings.

There is the obvious transition across the Jordan out of the Promised Land, but there is also the passing on of the prophetic anointing across generations, and the tearing open of the boundary between heaven and earth. As such it provides a helpful model of the transition which we are to make this coming week, from Ordinary Time into Lent.

Why is Elijah’s assumption into heaven to take place outside the boundaries of the Promised Land? We don’t know, but there is something about a prophet being without honour in his own land. As a parish priest I have known the freedom and creativity which comes simply from leaving my patch for a quiet day or a time of writing or preparation. Whether in the former El Tico’s in St Ouen’s Bay, at Dobbies’ Garden Centre or at a friend’s bungalow in the Wolds, there is freedom which I don’t feel at home. Maybe after all his conflict and confrontation Elijah had to get out of his ‘parish’ in order to be free to return to his Father. Maybe some kind of ‘getting away from it all’ will form a part of our Lenten refreshment, where we withdraw in order to return to our Father (although hopefully not permanently).

Elijah Elisha

The second motif is that of passing on the baton to his successor. Elisha is a willing pupil, reluctant to leave his master’s side for a second, and his request for a ‘double portion’ of Elijah’s spirit isn’t a request for twice as much, but rather that he officially become his heir. Lent is indeed a time for personal spiritual renewal and refreshment, but it might also remind us of our responsibility for others. What are we doing which will influence, train or disciple those around us, with whom we share a calling to speak and live the values of the Kingdom of God? Maybe for some of us it provides an opportunity to pass on some area of ministry in which we have found our identity to a new, perhaps younger, generation, never an easy thing to do if we have come to believe that we are saviours of the universe and that without us life as we know it simply cannot go on.

Thirdly, there is the heaven/earth boundary which is crossed as the river opens miraculously, as heaven sends down the fiery taxi to pick up Elijah, and most significantly as Elisha sees Elijah’s departure and is thus confirmed as his heir. Slightly after the end of our passage Elisha checks this out dramatically, as he strikes the river, calls out for the God of Elijah, and re-enters the battlefield.  Those who are keen on Celtic spirituality will be familiar with the concept of ‘thin places’, where the boundaries between heaven and earth seem to be particularly flimsy: maybe Lent is a ‘thin time’. As we give ourselves to deepening our discipleship, paying attention to our walk with God, and growing in our faith, maybe we will cross some boundaries ourselves, know a new anointing of the Holy Spirit, and re-enter that battle which is Christian living with new heart and new confidence in the God of miracles.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Nehemiah

We said last time that Ezra and Nehemiah tell complimentary stories about the rebuilding of the physical and spiritual life of the returned exiles. Nehemiah is still a part of the Priestly source: there is still the liturgical concern and the lists of names, as well as a lot of architectural details, but it is also a rattling good story. Nehemiah, who is an important official in the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes, hears from Jerusalem from the first wave of returned exiles, and is dismayed to discover that the walls of the city, so vital for its defence, have not yet been rebuilt. After weeping, fasting and prayer he plucks up his courage and pleads with his boss the king to be allowed to return to oversee the rebuilding. He is given permission, and soon mobilises the workers.

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However it is no time before opposition hits his efforts. Sanballat, who seems to head up the opposition, begins with mockery and discouragement, then intrigue and intimidation, and finally the outright threat of violence. But Nehemiah is steadfast and undaunted, praying for God’s vengeance on his enemies. Finally the walls are completed, a list of names is complied, and Ezra steps onto the stage. In a massive public festival he reads the Law, and the Israelites respond with profound emotion. We have the text of a long prayer of penitence, and the rededication both of the new walls and the people. Finally Nehemiah carries out some social reforms, reinstituting the Sabbath and beating up and scalping some men who had intermarried with foreign wives.

 

The book is driven by zeal, and at times what we might see as excessive zeal, but the link between the social and the religious life of the community is made clear. Physical bricks and mortar and penitence and prayer go hand in hand, when so often in the church we separate the two. I even knew churches where the PCC was responsible for the practical stuff while a team of ‘elders’ looked after the spiritual life of the church. Nehemiah does not see it like this at all.

 

The book also gives us a highly true-to-life account of the kinds of opposition which those trying to rebuild spirituality can often face. Without being tempted to read the book merely as a parable for contemporary church renewal we can nevertheless learn much from understanding the tactics of those who oppose renewal, and their motivations in bringing it. Nehemiah responds to the threat of violence by posting armed guards alongside the builders, and even armed some of the builders, which must have made it difficult for them. There is a real appreciation of the battle involved in seeking rebuilding and renewal, and nothing much has changed today, other than our will to fight.

 

The sections involving the ministry of Ezra are significant, too. The reading of the Law is met with a great variety of responses, from joyful praise, to weeping, to feasting to penitence. As a teacher one of my big beefs with the church is that we seldom teach God’s word as we should, and rarely if ever expect any response from the people. I love the idea that a team of people both read the Law and explained it in a way which helped people to understand it and respond to it. And they come back for more, every day for a week! A bit of a far cry from the preaching ministry in many churches today.

 

The fact that the book ends not with the highspot of teaching, prayer and response but with the need to beat up those who are still sinning is a tragic commentary on life. We’re going to see before too long the next phase of the story, albeit from a different point of view from that of the Priestly writers, but we have a few books, and a whole new strand of writing, to explore before we get there. But first one extra book, a bit of an oddity, as we turn next week to Esther.

Surveying the Liturgical Scene

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OK, here we go with this blogging lark. I’m going to try and do three per week (#rodformyownback), one asking some questions about the current liturgical scene in the C of E, one with some biographical hints on hanging on to God in bad times, and hopefully something a little bit lighter too. It won’t be deep or scholarly, but I hope it might make people think, and at times be fun too. So let’s begin with liturgy.

Many years ago now I wrote a book called ‘Liturgy and Liberty’, which seems to have become something of a standard text. It was written from the context of a large evangelical/charismatic church which was nevertheless proud of its Anglican heritage, and its these was basically that liturgy and openness to the Holy Spirit were not opposites, but that the two could go perfectly well together. I then attempted to give some practical tips for how this might be made to work. The book was republished as ‘Living Liturgy’, and you can still get it off of Amazon for 1p.

Well, that was many years ago, but as I look around the Anglican church now I see very little evidence that anyone took much notice of it. Of course I caricature, but there are growing, Spirit-filled, disciple-making churches, and there are liturgical churches. (There are of course growing Cathedrals too, but I think they’re a special case. I’m currently worshipping at a cathedral, and it’s very nice, but trying to ‘join’ it is a bit like trying to join a cinema. As to how well it is forming Christian disciples, citizens and leaders I have absolutely no idea, and I don’t know if anyone else has either.)

But visit yer average thriving evo/charismatic church and you’re likely to find that worship = singing songs. This has become institutionalised in the ubiquitous ‘Now we’re going to move into a time of worship’ 20 minutes into the service. If any liturgy at all is used, it is likely to be for the confession, thus proving that unlike Yellow Pages liturgy is only there for the nasty things in life.

At times this neglect of our Anglican liturgical heritage is held up as a virtue, and rhetoric reminiscent of the early House Church days is used to explain that all liturgy is ‘vain repetition’ and a human device to quench the Spirit. But most often liturgy is omitted by default rather than by design. This is reinforced by the festivals of different networks, where what is modelled is essentially un-Anglican, if not anti-Anglican. My sense is that the younger people particularly in such churches have unwittingly accepted the idea that liturgy and life can never go together.

This is of course not without some justification. In the early days of the House Church movement many people from what they would have described as ‘dead’ Anglican churches found new life and freedom elsewhere, and it became easy to believe that the liturgy (usually of the Book of Common Prayer) was responsible for the lack of vitality. The drift towards ‘Anglican’ networks and quasi-Vineyards is the contemporary equivalent, and of course these tend to be the kinds of churches which are growing and disciple-making. But is there a cause and effect thing going on here? is it possible to have a thriving church which is profoundly and thoroughly liturgical? That’s what I want to explore, and I’d be glad of any help anyone out there could give me.