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

IFile:4coronati-mariominitti1600.jpg
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.

OT Lectionary 16th Feb Lent -3 Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Choose Life!

‘I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.’ Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton off of Trainspotting deliberately chooses the self-destructive lifestyle of heroin addiction, counting that a better way than middle-class conformity. The choice the Israelites are called to make is even less complex than that. Obey God, and you’ll thrive, oppose him and you’ll be destroyed. Bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it? Yet those who are supposed to be God’s people constantly make bad choices, you and I included. History tells us that rather than enjoying God’s blessing and many more years in the land God had promised and given to them, a land which they were about to enter for the first time, they constantly rebelled against God and were eventually exiled and scattered among the other nations. Still today the ‘land’ is a matter of major international dispute and warfare.

File:Road Fork - geograph.org.uk - 415867.jpg

This stark passage raises two questions worthy of our consideration: the first is ‘Why are we so stupid?’, but the second is deeper: ‘Is it really that clear cut?’

The answer to the first is quite simply that sin is enjoyable. It has to be, or else no-one would bother with it. Right back in Genesis 3 the fruit ‘was good for food and pleasing to the eye’: I guess it would have been much less tempting had it looked and smelt like tripe or mussels or something. When the C of E was revising its Baptism liturgy for Common Worship the original draft of the promises asked:

‘Do you reject the glamour, deceit and corruption of evil?

Do you renounce all proud rebellion against God?’

The text which was finally authorised had lost the words ‘glamour’ and ‘proud’: I consider that this is a tragic weakening of the biblical picture of sin and arrogance, and I still keep them in when I baptise. If we are not interested in something, it will have no power over us, but it is precisely that ‘glamour’ which feels so attractive, although of course there is always a sting in the tail, which is why the word ‘deceit’ is so vital too. It is worth considering which sinful things attract us, and what we might do to see through their deceit, see them as they really are and so find it easier to avoid them. I guess sanctification is a life-long journey of discovery in this area, as sin appeals less and less the more time we’ve spent with God.

But is it really as simple as Deuteronomy makes out? Obviously not, or why the eternal agonised questioning of the human race as to why good people suffer, a debate into which I have myself have dipped my toes? https://revjohnleach.com/category/godingrimtimes-2/ #godingrimtimes.  The fact is that those who honour God often find themselves in deep trouble, whilst those who ignore him appear to prosper. But what the Bible does say, I believe, that to refuse to choose God won’t ultimately get you anywhere. And to those who do choose him, there is the promise of eternal reward eventually. Pie in the sky when you die? Of course! As we said last week, the Bible is unashamed in its promises of reward for God’s faithful people. Our mistake is that we want that reward now, rather than later.

OT Lectionary 26th Jan Epiphany 3 Is 9:1-4

We’re so used to hearing this passage at Christmas time, as a ‘prophecy’ about the Messiah’s birth (see this blog for Christmas http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-2z) that we easily forget that the OT, rather than simply being words which are not going to have any relevance for a few hundred years’ time, addresses real situations which real people are facing. In this case there is imminent threat of invasion from Assyria, and quite understandably the people are beginning to get a bit sweaty, particularly those living in the north of Israel, who are going to be the first hit as the invaders sweep down from the north. So forgetting the Messiah for a moment, what is God saying to the people, and to us, through this passage?

First of all, there is an acknowledgement of the real suffering of the people. Those living in the north had indeed been devastated by the invasion: they really were in distress and gloom. I note with interest that there is no sense of an apology from God. We’d be agonising about why he had allowed such terrible pain, how it wasn’t fair etc etc. We’d be expecting some great theology of suffering, or a profound explanation of why God, in his infinite mercy, had not stopped the invading hoards in their tracks. Instead, all we get is that the northern tribes had been ‘humbled’. Frustrating or what?

Instead, there’s simply a promise. With the change of tenses we have noted before, God promises an end to oppression, light in their darkness, the breaking of their oppressors’ power, and joy to replace their fear and sorrow.

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Dentist_assistants.JPG

 

This raises a really important question, one which many suffering Christians have agonised over. Put simply, the question is: ‘Why does God not think that prevention is better than cure?’ Why does he so often promise restoration after suffering, rather than stopping the suffering in the first place? It really does seem to be the case that God sees things differently from us. We’d do everything we could to make it all nice, so of course if we were Almighty God we’d make sure that no-one else ever had anything nasty happen to them. For some reason God doesn’t play that game.

I wonder whether there’s a clue in the word ‘humbled’. The fact is that the Bible is a lot more positive about pain and suffering than we tend to be. Sometimes, according to several passages, it can do us good to hurt a bit. And while this sounds callous, any dentist will understand it: for the good of our health it is important that it hurts for a while. Of course we all try to avoid suffering and causing suffering, but sometimes it is inevitable and for our good. One day we will find out from God what the hard times we have been through have put into us for our good, but in the meantime suffering remains a mystery and a subject for agonised theological debate. Our job is to learn more and more to see things from God’s point of view and consider it joy when we face trials. Not an easy task!

 

 

The Problem of Suffering

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-179-1575-08, Ioannina, Deportation von Juden.jpg

One of the questions which has perplexed philosophers down the years is about suffering; not how on earth do we cope with it, but why is it there in the first place? I’m no great philosopher or theologian (as you will by now have noticed if you’ve been following my blogs) but I want to try to shed some light on this difficult question in my next two posts under the #godingrimtimes hashtag. Today I simply want to note two things: next time I’ll attempt my take on why people suffer. I doubt that it’ll be the last word, but it might just help those who are as concerned about why this is hurting as about how much it is hurting.

The first thing to say is that the problem of pain and evil is only a problem if you believe three things about God: you have to believe he exists, that he is powerful and that he is good. Take any or all of those out of the equation and your problem disappears instantly. If God is not real we live in a random universe where things … just happen. There’s no-one to blame if life hurts you. If God isn’t all-powerful then however much he might want to stop people suffering he just might not be up to the job. And if he isn’t a good God then he might inflict suffering just for fun, because he enjoys watching his people squirm. All of these possibilities make perfect sense, and completely solve the ‘mystery’ of suffering. But it is the stubborn Christian belief in a real, powerful and loving God which creates the problem.

Secondly (and we do need to get a bit philosophical here) pain and suffering is always a consequence of free will. If God wants his people to love and worship him, and like all of us wants to be loved because we love him and not because we have no choice or because he has our arms up behind our backs, there must be the logical possibility that we’ll choose to go the opposite way and reject him. He could theoretically have made us to live in a world where we have no choice but to do everything right, in which case suffering might not be a feature of life, but that would rob us of our free will and therefore of the possibility of a genuinely free loving relationship with him.

All of which takes us no closer at all to understanding a world where nasty thing happen and people get hurt. Neither, if I’m honest, does it do very much to help those who are going through the mill at the moment. We still need to grieve, to shout and cry ‘Why me?’ We may even conclude that in fact the God we thought we knew turns out not to be real and/or powerful and/or loving. But it might just help a bit to understand that in a sense it’s nothing personal: pain is, and has to be, a part of our experience, at least in this life.

But where does suffering actually come from? I’ll have a go at tackling that next time.

Hanging on to God in Grim Times

And now for something completely different. Let’s leave liturgy aside until next week, and consider instead the subject of hanging on to God in grim times (#godingrimtimes). At the moment my life is in a bit of a mess, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the details, but the past few months have seen me bullied out of a parish to the point where I could go on no longer, then being diagnose with cancer, and a lot of other stuff you don’t need to know about. So what is a Christian to do? I’ve written a book on the subject, which is due out next year, but I thought it might be helpful to share a few insights as to how I have managed still to believe in and love God when just about everything in my life has crumbled. I know there are a lot of hurting people out there, but it does seem to me to make it harder when you’re supposed to follow a God who can work miracles, who loves you and is supposed to be for you. All I can offer are a few hints as to what is getting me through the night.

I’m very aware, of course, that all this could come over unbearably twee and nice. I have no idea, dear reader, what you are going through at the moment, and I’m sure it could be even worse than my situation. I have been through the stage of finding all the pat Christian answers unconvincing, but somehow I have come back to the point of hanging on to God. So let me tell you some of the stuff which has helped me, and maybe you can come back to me and tell me if it has helped you or not.

The first thing to say, and you won’t like this any more than I do, is that real though it is your pain is relative. A few years ago a friend and I wrote a Grove Book called ‘Hanging on to God’. We were a pair of charismatic Christians who were going through hard times, and we wrote up a series of dialogues we had had trying to make some sense of it all. At the time I was reflecting on a period of joblessness, almost homelessness, and what seemed like utter rejection and abandonment by God. My friend had just lost his wife in the most cruel way to MS. I acknowledge in the book that I felt unworthy even to be bound within the same covers as him: what was my temporary unemployment compared to the tragic death of your wife? Yet the fact is that suffering is unique and personal, and doesn’t hurt any the less because someone else’s suffering is worse or different. But what I have found is that it can be a good discipline to find things, even from the depths, for which to thank God.

Tomorrow I will be journeying back to the church of which I was vicar in the 90s to the funeral of my successor, who dropped dead of a heart attack. I may have been diagnosed with cancer (everyone’s worst nightmare), but at least I’m getting over it. John’s life ended just like that, in a moment. I may face homelessness, but millions around the world live their entire lives like that, including many in my own country. On one level that doesn’t help me, but it is useful exercise to look for items for praise. It keeps the cynicism wolf from the door.

More tips next week!