Old Testament Lectionary March 15th Mothering Sunday Exodus 2:1-10/1 Samuel 1:20-28

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

I’m assuming that most churches will want to celebrate Mothering Sunday this week, but when I looked up the OT lectionary passages I have to say that I couldn’t make up my mind between them, so I’m actually going to do a bit of both. Mothering Sunday is, of course, fraught with difficulties for so many reasons, but I believe that there is much here which can speak to all sorts and conditions of women.

One of the big debates of recent years, although I sense we’ve all got a bit bored with it now, is whether God is male or female, or, more specifically, whether we should use male or female language about him or her. I too am bored with this sterile debate, but what I can affirm is that God often exhibits traits which, in our particular stereotyped culture, we would tend to call female ones. I am in no doubt that God ‘mothers’ us. I want to suggest that both the mothers in today’s OT stories are in fact behaving in some very God-like ways, and by looking at these women we can learn much about what it is God’s job to do with regard to children, and how parents may reflect this. You will get it as we go on, honest!

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Jochebed, Moses’ mum, begins, obviously, by giving birth. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, does the same, although not until after a significant struggle and much prayer. Both of them reveal God as the life-giver, and affirm that when we create new life we are doing what God intended the human race to do, although the Bible also recognises, in several places, the heartache and grief of women who find it difficult or impossible to conceive. In a Jewish culture where this would have been a sign of being cursed by God the Scriptures take a different view, and give dignity and particular care to those agonising over childlessness.

Jochebed then has to protect her child, due to the particular circumstances in which they lived, in a hostile nation with a cruel and violent ruler. She is wise and resourceful in this protection, and reveals to us God as the giver of life but also as its sustainer and protector. She also has to provide for her baby, and does so by finding a caring surrogate mother who will even pay her to bring up her own child. Like God she is life-giver, protector, sustainer and provider.

This isn’t made explicit in the Exodus passage, but Hannah in 1 Samuel dedicates the life of her son to God. Many couples, even those with a very tenuous faith, feel the weight of responsibility on becoming parents and want in some way to ‘dedicate’ their child, through whatever ceremony the church offers them. And of course Christian parents who actually get it will want nothing more than to see their children continuing in the faith into which they were born, and eventually making the shift from family faith to personal faith and discipleship.

But perhaps the most difficult part comes, again from the Hannah story, when she has to let go. God gives us our children not as possessions to hang on to forever, but as gifts in trust. Our children are ours to bear, protect, nurture, care for, but also to dedicate to him for his service. The time times when they must make their own way in life, and a very difficult and painful parting this can be, particularly when the path they choose might not be that which we would have chosen for them, or when that parting involves them being suddenly snatched away from us. But just as they will always be in our hearts, so we, as God’s children, will always be in his caring, loving attention, even during those times when we choose to go our own way for a while.

God gives parenting, and particularly mothering, significance and dignity, because when we do it we are doing what he does. But his heart is also broken for the childless, the anxious, the lonely and, perhaps most painful of all, those bereaved of their children. Mothering Sunday is not just for nice happy nuclear families: all the joy and grief which come bundled together with children can be brought into our worship and intercession today.

Old Testament Lectionary 18th January Epiphany 2 1 Samuel 3:1-20

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

The story of Samuel’s prophetic ‘coming of age’ is set in a time when ‘the word of the Lord was rare’. What we might call the ‘supernatural’ action of God ebbs and flows throughout the Bible, and indeed has throughout church history too. Samuel appears at a time of low ebb, and his prophetic career is launched solely by the sovereign intervention of God.

I’ll leave you to decide for yourself whether we too live in a time when there are ‘not many visions’, but this passage raises two different questions: how do we hear and recognise the voice of God, and what is the place of children and parents in this area?

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Many of us, I guess, will have had times when we have sensed in some way that God is trying to get through to us. Those more used to this kind of thing, perhaps through charismatic renewal, will know what it means to have thoughts come into their heads which kind of feel like God, or see a mental picture, or experience a dream which feels significant. But so often we are quick to write these kinds of experiences off as our own thoughts, or even a result of that late night cheese we had. Samuel fortunately has Eli as his mentor, and he is quick to recognise what the young boy does not and to encourage him to respond appropriately. I don’t know how good experienced leaders are at encouraging others to learn to trust their instincts and listen actively to the Spirit, but it surely ought to be part of our ministry. The twist in the tail of this story comes, of course, when the message God wants to give is an uncompromising message of judgement on the very man who is encouraging Samuel to hear it. The message is totally without hope: those of us older in the ways of the church need to be prepared, when mentoring younger people, to hear sometimes about the death of our old and sometimes corrupt ways.

It is ironic, therefore, that Eli, who is so good at nurturing and encouraging Samuel in his prophetic career, is condemned because of his failure to disciple his own family. We’re told in chapter 2 about his sons Hophni and Phinehas, and their behaviour in terms of greed, the dishonouring of God’s sacrifices, and sexual immorality, and of Eli’s somewhat feeble attempts to discipline them, and it seems to contrast greatly with his care of Samuel. But we all know that it can sometimes be easier to deal with other people’s kinds than our own.

So how might your church encourage people of all ages to listen to God, and to expect that he might speak? We’re often told that prayer is as much about listening to God as it is to speaking to him, but rarely in my experience are we given any help in actually knowing how to do this. It’s a whole subject on its own, but my top hints would be to give God significant time and space, and learn to believe that the first thing which pops into your head is most likely to be from God, and is usually followed quickly by our own self doubts and rationalisations. My own experience is that children take to this like ducks to water, without the all-pervading self doubt of adults. We also need to help people to know how to handle what they think they may have heard, whom they might share it with, and so on. I personally would also encourage people to believe that the stuff in Deuteronomy 18 about putting false prophets to death no longer applies, and it’s Ok to have a God even if you don’t quite get it right. And let’s pray that the word of the Lord might not be so rare any more.

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Lent 4 1 Samuel 16:1-13

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, so if you’d rather use those readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4J 

This passage is all about appearances being deceptive, and about the way that as humans we struggle to see things in the same way that God sees them. Rick Warren, in his Purpose-driven Church (Zondervan, 1995) tries to analyse the nature of discipleship, and the ways in which we grow into it. His second step, after Biblical knowledge, is Perspective, which may be defined exactly as this ability to understand how God sees things, and to subdue our personal likes and dislikes to his. For example, in an age where sin has gone out of fashion (while sinning, apparently, remains as popular as ever) Christians need to understand just how repugnant it is to God, and just how harmful it is to individuals and to society as a whole. When we see sin as he does, that makes it a whole lot easier to want to avoid it.

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Getting God’s perspective on things, therefore, will often bring us naturally into conflict with the values of the world around us. It isn’t that Christians are meant to be unpopular: it’s just that we’re meant to be unpopular for the right reasons and over the right issues. So how do we gain this sense of perspective? How do we learn to see what God sees, which is so often buried under the surface?

Samuel basically learns here through trial and error, and ears open to God’s promptings. On one level he doesn’t come out of this chapter looking very good at all. First of all he’s hanging on to the past: God has to rebuke him because of his over-fond memories of King Saul (whom, of course, he had previously anointed). The hard truth is that God has rejected him: God forbid that we hold onto something God has finished with – there’s a lesson for the church right there, which I have discussed elsewhere in my Ending Well (www.grovebooks.co.uk R39). His next mistake is to assume that he knows the answer himself – he has already made his mind up without a single word from the Lord as soon as he sees how butch Eliab is. So again God has to remind him that he sees things differently, and that he sees the hidden things of the heart, the irony being that while Samuel himself looks every bit the prophet, enough in fact to scare the good townsfolk of Bethlehem, his heart is so mistaken, which God can see.

From then on he seems sadder and wiser, and ready to hear when God rejects Eliab’s brothers one by one. So do we hear in his question to Jesse about any more sons the conviction that there must be, because God hasn’t chosen any so far, or rather a lack of faith in God, or in his ability to hear him (‘Of course you haven’t got any more sons, have you?’) I’ll let you decide that one, but at the end of the passage he seems at least to have learnt one thing: in obedience to God’s word he anoints this young bit of a kid, and then presumably sees evidence of the rightness of this action as the Spirit anoints David too.

I don’t think the major question is whether or not we have gained God’s perspective: we’re all on the way, hopefully. But it is about being obedient even when we’re not sure, giving God, as it were, the benefit of the doubt.