Rev. David’s Old Testament Reading Notes

For each Sunday of the year, the Church of England appoints an Old Testament reading which may be read at the main Service. Recently, Rev David has been providing a monthly leaflet offering brief comment on these passages.

At Claines and St George’s we use the New Revised Standard Version Anglicised (NRSVA). If you don’t have a Bible ready to hand you can always find the readings at www.biblegateway.com. For psalms, search for ‘Psalter Church of England.’ There you will find the excellent Common Worship version.

Why read the Old Testament?

Quite simply, we read the Old Testament because it was the collection of Holy Scriptures for Jesus and his fellow Jews. For the Jews it formed their whole social, political, economic and religious way of life.

There is no evidence that Jesus was trained as an authorised teacher (Rabbi) but people certainly flocked to hear him preach and teach and some called him, ‘Rabbi.’ Even Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin) addressed him as ‘Rabbi’ (John 3.2)

Sometimes Jesus affirmed the straightforward message of the Old Testament; sometimes he cast fresh light on some passages, giving a new interpretation that contradicted the ‘received’ interpretation and so drew criticism from the recognised leaders of society (The Sadducees and the Pharisees).

As Christians we receive the Old Testament as it is understood through the ministry of Jesus. The message of Jesus builds on what God has already revealed of himself in the Old Testament, sometimes to affirm it, sometimes to see it in a new light – and then sometimes to go on beyond it. (See for example the verses in Matthew 5 where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to people long ago  …………  but I tell you  ………..)

Rev. David

Rev David’s notes commence with the most recent month’s first. Please scroll down for previous month’s notes.

January 2021

January 3rd

The Second Sunday of Christmas: Jeremiah 31v7-14

Jeremiah’s message of hope through the abundant grace and generosity of God is addressed to Ephraim who represents the ten tribes of Northern Israel. This kingdom was overrun and exiled by the Assyrians some 100 years ago by the time Jeremiah wrote these words. In Jeremiah’s time the southern kingdom, Judah, was heading for a similar fate under Babylonia. In this dark and frightening situation Jeremiah shines a powerful beam of the light of hope. There was indeed a measure of restoration after Judah’s seventy years of exile but it never was anything like the glorious restoration of Eden and the promised land of which Jeremiah had spoken.

But the things of God are born in the heart as Jeremiah shortly goes on to say, “I will write my law on their hearts” (31.33). The Jews carried this hope for some 500 years until signs of the glory of Paradise began to arise in the ministry of Jesus. These seeds of new life were affirmed and demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus inspires within our hearts and mind the beginnings of paradise, of eternal life. Sometimes that life wells up and overflows transforming, for a while,  our own life and the environment around us. These are the sure and certain signs of something far greater that will transform us on the Last Day when Christ comes again and death is conquered.

January 10th

The Baptism of Christ: Genesis 1v1-5

We notice the power of the word to achieve what it states. As we read in Psalm 33.9, “For he spoke, and it was done.”

God’s word is creative power continually bearing fruit for good. Isaiah 55.11 again informs us, “my word will not return empty … but will accomplish what I desire …” The centurion of Matthew 8 also recognised the power of the word, “I say to this servant come, and he comes; to another servant go, and he goes.” The centurion recognised the power of Jesus’ word to heal. So often we feel ineffective by comparison – I haven’t the courage to pray aloud positively for someone’s healing – nobody listens to what I say, anyway. James 3 reminds us of the power of the tongue, a small member, but like the rudder of a ship has an influence out of all proportion to its size. James warns us of the great danger (a raging fire) that can be done by our words if we do not choose them carefully, with wisdom and love and kindness. In all your speech and writing have respect for the words you choose recognising their ability to achieve for good or for ill more than you might ever imagine.

January 17th

The Second Sunday of Epiphany: 1 Sam. 3v1-20

I was about 22. It was Sunday morning and I heard my voice called, waking me up – David! The clock said 10 to 8. Somehow I got to church, down the road, washed and dressed for the 8 o’clock service. Returning home I said to my parents thank you for waking me up. But they said, ‘No, we did not call you.’ That was strange!

Many of us have these rather out-of-the-ordinary experiences and we have the choice either to dismiss them or follow them up. Scientists make their discoveries by following up the unusual. The first modern study of ‘The varieties of religious experience’ was undertaken in 1900 by the psychologist and philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James). This work has been followed up in more recent times at the ‘Religious Experience Research Centre’ at Oxford, founded in 1969 by Sir Alister Hardy, a marine biologist. The work continues to this day at Lampeter university. Religious or spiritual experiences are a widespread part of human life capable of contributing to a healthy sense of well-being. Sharing our stories with one another, trying to understand any meaning they may have for us, comparing them with similar stories in the Bible or in the lives of other Christians can contribute to the strengthening of our faith. Read my daughter’s Lent book, “Telling His Story,” by Hannah Steele for a feast of contemporary testimonies.

January 24th

The Third Sunday of Epiphany: Genesis 14v17-20

In a rather unusual episode in his life, Abraham had just returned from rescuing his nephew Lot from captivity by Chedorlaomer who had been terrorising the locality. Other local chieftains wanted to thank him and one of them, King Melchizedek comes to give him a blessing and Abraham pays homage giving him a tithe of all his possessions. Salem was the place that hundreds of years later would be captured by King David and become known to us as Jerusalem. In those times every locality had its own ‘tribal’ god. The god of Salem was named El Elyon which translates as God Most High. This name is often used in the psalms as an alternative to the name revealed to Moses, ‘Yahweh’, ‘He Who Is.’ This is an excellent example of the way in which the God of the Bible is able to absorb elements of other cultures. So, for instance, the blessing of the wells in Derbyshire is a ‘Christianisation’ of what was once a pagan practice. Other people introduce the Holy Spirit as the breath in Yoga to form a practice of Christian Yoga. Africans have embraced their own tribal dances and rhythms as part of their Christian worship. Many young people today express their worship through popular music. We need to open our hearts and minds to God’s creative capacity for great variety. It is, after all, all around us in nature which, perhaps, is why the psalms sometimes call upon all the the sounds and movements of nature to join in our worship.

January 31st

The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany: Deuteronomy 8v15-20

Deuteronomy (the word means ‘a second statement of the law’) is a re-presentation of the essence of the teaching of Moses contained in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. It is centred round the giving of the law at Sinai and presented as an encouragement to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. But it also speaks to us about any new venture we may be considering – the challenges of a New Year or, maybe, a new job, or a new family situation.  Expressions like ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Deut. 10.16) and ‘the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it,’ (30.14), breathe the new and deeper spirituality of the prophets as exemplified in Jeremiah (4.4; 31.33).

Today’s passage emphasises the personal and generous provision of the Lord – He is always there to provide our needs in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. But we must humbly recognise our need of the Lord, recognise that we are not quite so self-sufficient as we might imagine ourselves to be. We must turn away from false gods and resist false desires and temptations. Hold to the Lord with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength that you may be able to enter into the abundant blessings of the Promised Land. Go forward with a heart open in love to all around you and a mind open to wisdom in all the decisions you make.

2020

December

December 6th

The Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 40v1-11

This message of sympathy and consolation was first addressed to the Israelite exiles in Babylonia in the 6th century BC when the Persian Commander, Cyrus, was on his way to free the exiles and grant them safe passage back to the ruins of Jerusalem. It was a message proclaiming hope for a new beginning. The message was picked up again by the disciples of Jesus in the first century AD. They experienced the ministry of Jesus as the power of a new way of life enabling them to counter the domination of Rome and all the other pains and oppressions of life. So, too, in our own times we can receive these words as hope for better times as we hear news of a vaccine for coronavirus. The eye of faith sees the working of God behind the medical research today just as much as Isaiah saw the working of God behind the campaign of the pagan leader, Cyrus.

Prophetic voices go on to say that when the Lord takes the initiative we need to recognise the Lord’s move and take the opportunity to move forward in the power of the Lord. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near,” proclaims Isaiah (55.6). Use the opportunities brought to us by the vaccine to work for the kind of Kingdom that God asks for – justice, freedom, compassion, love.

December 13th

The Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61v1-4, 8-end

The message is clear: Nothing is impossible, there’s no such word as can’t, exercise your imagination, be creative, take risks, you’re not imprisoned by the circumstances of your birth or upbringing. The future is always a world of opportunity. This is the message which Jesus brought when he announced, “The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near.” We may read Isaiah 51 as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus as the ‘servant’ filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The new life that Jesus offers comes as a ‘down-payment’ now (The Holy Spirit) and the fullness of completion on the Last Day. The years that lie before us now are given to us so that we may begin the work of building, repairing and raising up. We are to begin creating a society founded on justice and freedom and compassion. Such works of faith and hope and love survive into the time of the New Jerusalem (1 Cor.3. 10-14), albeit transformed, just as seeds are transformed (resurrected) into full-grown plants (1 Cor.15. 42-44). We are called to do our own part: building up our circle of family and friends, enriching our neighbourhoods and places of work, contributing to our church community, working for the common good of those in our own country, working for world peace, justice, freedom and green issues.

December 20th

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: 2 Sam. 7v1-11, 16

David had successfully captured and taken possession of Jerusalem; he had rescued the Ark of the Lord and brought it triumphantly to Jerusalem. It is a natural human inclination to want to build on success and create something that lasts – a grand mansion, say, or perhaps a triumphal arch. We easily get carried away with the glory of our own success. Nathan has a word from the Lord that creates a pause. The message turns on the double meaning of house. There is a house built of bricks and stones and timber. There is also a house which is the continuing succession of descendants as we speak of the House of the Normans or the House of Windsor. Temples, churches, chapels and cathedrals serve their purpose as important centres for the promotion of faith but what matters ultimately is a succession of people who love the Lord and follow his ways. The Bible never loses sight of the wilderness experience of God’s people wandering around with the Presence of the Lord among them, guiding them, and providing for them. When we commit our lives to Christ we are adopted into this succession of God’s people. Wherever we meet in twos or threes we form a shrine in which the Lord is present. The fullness of God’s creative, redeeming and sanctifying power is always present with us even in the most humble of circumstances.

December 25th

Christmas Day: Isaiah 9v2-7

The first chapter of the Bible begins with the creation of light, “Let there be light.” The final chapter of the Bible tells how the Lord God Himself will be the light of the New Jerusalem. The theme of “light” runs all the way through the Bible. In Genesis 1, then, it is the primal energy that creates, and joins together, and builds, and grows, and empowers all that is around us in the world. Take a pause and breathe in, as it were, all that enlivening, invigorating, empowering life whereby God is working his purposes for good. The prophet Isaiah speaks of light in a metaphorical way – all that energy that works for the good of human welfare; lifting us out of depression and gloom; delivering us from constraints and burdens; giving us confidence; lifting our hearts in joy and song and praise. Isaiah 49 tells how this light not only ‘shines’ within us but also ‘shines through’ us to those around us. The artistic representation of a Saint with a halo expresses this idea of God’s word and life and love reaching out through each one of us to the wider community. Jesus said ‘I am the Light of the world.’ (John 8.12.) The primal energy that is light is not just magnetic or gravitational or nuclear, fundamental and immense as these may be. More significantly this light now revealed in the Person of Jesus is all the energy that builds up the fullness of human life – love, goodness, mercy, wisdom, justice, compassion, joy and faith and so much more. Place yourself in the Presence of Jesus and ask Him to ‘shine’ all these life-giving qualities of His into your life so that you may become as He is (1 John 3. 2-3).

December 27th

The First Sunday of Christmas: Isaiah 61v10 – 62. 3

This prophecy of comfort and joy extends over 2 chapters and begins with the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” The prophecy is one of real practical benefit to those returning from the Babylonian exile but also applies more generally to any situation or person transformed by the Holy Spirit. We may remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit not only ‘comes upon’ Jesus at his baptism but is also “poured out” upon all those who set themselves to follow Jesus. In these words of Isaiah we see typical examples of the ways in which the Holy Spirit changes lives and situations – thrilling people with song and joy, protecting people from perilous situations, setting them on paths of righteousness and service and compassion.

The prophet provides an analogy, “as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, …” Consider this: as plants are fed and nourished they not only grow more and larger versions of what they already have (like stalks and leaves), but they also produce things quite different from what can already be seen, such as, maybe, the petal of a flower, or maybe, the soft berry of a fruit. Be prepared for God to want to do new things through you and the church.

November

November 1st

All Saints Day: Psalm 34v1-10

The experience of the Old Testament is that when those who are in need call upon the Lord they receive an answer that helps. Those in sickness receive healing, those drowning in the depths are rescued, those fearful of the future are given peace, those threatened by enemies are delivered. Story after story in the Old Testament records many examples – Joseph in prison, Moses at the Reed Sea, Elijah threatened by King Ahab and Jezebel.

The psalms turn much of this history into hymns of thanksgiving and praise so that what was observed to be the outcome in the past can also be true for me personally in the present. As we read the psalms and try to imagine the worship in the Temple we realise it must have been a quite exuberant experience. We read of trumpets and harps and lyres, there were tambourines and pipes and dancing, there were loud clashing cymbals, also processions and clapping and raising of hands. And as if that weren’t enough the whole of creation is envisaged as joining in – heavens rejoice, seas resound, fields are jubilant, trees sing, rivers clap their hands. The New Testament completes the cosmic orchestra in the Book of Revelation with the angelic choirs and elders endlessly singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’ All of this the believers in the Lord Jesus received in their hearts on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit gave them ‘power of utterance.’ This is indeed the joyful, liberating, peace-loving energy of the Lord; the promise that is for you and your children and for all who are far off. (Acts 2.39)

When you are alone ask the Holy Spirit to awaken that cosmic choir He has set within you. Sing out whatever He prompts, maybe something familiar, maybe a word repeated over and again, maybe just sounds that the Spirit gives. Do all in the name of the Lord and let Him feed you.

November 8th

The Third Sunday before Advent: Wisdom 6v12-20

Prophecy speaks to a crisis – Moses stretches out his rod to open the Reed Sea and he strikes the rock for water. Deborah calls on Barak and the Lord to rescue them from the Canaanites, Isaiah calls on the people to return from exile. But not all of life is like that; indeed, very little. Lady Wisdom is the One whom we follow in the in-between periods. Wisdom is what the Book of Proverbs is all about – guidance for everyday living based on observation and experience. The Jews continued to write about wisdom in books written between the Old Testament and the New Testament, especially Ecclesiasticus and the Book of Wisdom. It is the Wisdom emphasis we hear spoken by Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) – Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who show mercy, the peacemakers. Today’s passage from the Book of Wisdom is in praise of wisdom. The Letter of James continues to write in the wisdom style and commends the practice of praying for wisdom (James 1.5).

November 15th

The Second Sunday before Advent: Zephaniah 1v7, 12-end

If you jump off a cliff you will do yourself no favours. Such is the law of nature, we say. But if God is the Creator of all things, then it is also the law of God. We prefer to speak of natural consequence rather than punishment by God. God has also established certain laws applying to the ways in which people relate to one another. If we are greedy and violent and racist and self-seeking then we shall bring pain and death upon the world. The difficulty is that it is not only the guilty one who suffers. Nevertheless it remains true that wrong attitudes by some members of the community bring suffering upon the community as a whole. Returning to the laws of nature, I can’t tell you why God created poisonous plants and snakes and unexpected earthquakes. But I do know that he gives us the wherewithal to find out about these things so that we can combat them. We know from Genesis 3 that God wants to give us free will so that we may make choices. God appears to allow both good and bad into his world and invites us, as a community, to find our way through to the world of blessings. I remember reading an excellent book, ‘The Foolishness of God’ by John Austin Baker, sometime Bishop of Salisbury who lucidly and powerfully argued for such a world to be ‘The best of all possible worlds.’

Israel’s prophets are not slow to point out all the wrong styles of life that lead to widespread suffering. But the prophets also speak of a ‘Day of the Lord’ when the humble remnant of God’s faithful will find their way into a world of blessings. As Christians we believe that Jesus has opened the door to heaven. We already receive a blessing of down-payment now but there is more to come later. We do not live with downcast faces as if we already had one foot in the grave. Rather we have uplifted faces knowing that one foot is already in heaven.

November 22nd

Christ the King: Ezekiel 34v11-16, 20-24

A prophecy of the overflowing compassion, mercy, kindness and faithfulness of the Lord. The message is addressed to the younger generations who have been born and brought up during the seventy years of exile in Babylon. These people have never known the greatness of Jerusalem nor the uplifting worship of the Temple. Parents and grandparents will have handed on some stories and memories. Some of the new generation will have received and treasured these memories, others will have rejected them. What they all know is that life is currently unpleasant, they are not free, they are not happy, they are captive in a foreign land. The Lord promises to give them a new start and a new life. The Lord’s promise is for a pouring out of love that will find and rescue and heal and gather and feed and nurture and keep safe those who have suffered. Pray for a pouring out of the Spirit today upon the younger generations of our land.

Isaiah 64v1-9

Isaiah 63.7 – 64.12 is a single unit of poetry written in the form of a psalm, a psalm of supplication. The people are suffering. They recognise that the Lord has the right to punish sin and transgression but there is the feeling that the Lord has gone too far – ‘exceedingly angry.’(64.9). This idea is also expressed in (40.2) ‘She has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’ After all, the psalm argues with the Lord, we did not choose to be chosen by you and at the beginning you blessed us with great blessings, bringing us out of Egypt, providing for us in the wilderness – and now it seems as if you have turned against us. The psalm pleads for the Lord to renew his kindness and compassion. The psalm should encourage us to be open and honest with the Lord in our prayers and to lay our hearts open before him. Rather like a child pleading with a parent. And don’t take ‘no’ for an answer too soon. There is wisdom of maturity and experience in knowing how long to keep pressing your case. (See my previous comments of October 18th on the bartering of Abraham and Moses with the Lord.)

October

October 4th

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 20v1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Ten Commandments, sandwiched between two descriptions of the ‘thunder, lightning, trumpet sound and smoke’ that accompanied their presentation, are clearly meant to be of great significance. These are the conditions of a partnership (covenant, testament) between the LORD and his people. They are remarkably comprehensive in their scope. The LORD has done his part, rescuing the people from Egypt; now they must do their part.

Vv 2-8 call on the people to put the LORD first, elsewhere summarised as, ‘Worship the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ (Deut. 6.5.)

The prohibition of murder, adultery and theft are recognised by virtually all nations as basic human rights.

Any system of justice is undermined by people bearing false witness which is why perjury is a serious offence.

In case we are tempted to just ‘put on a good show’ and just follow the letter of the law the tenth commandment reminds us that what counts is where the heart is. The commandments are not setting us up before a human court, but setting us up before the face of the LORD. How are we measuring up as his partner?

Honouring father and mother is a bit different. The words point us to the fundamentals of the whole Old Testament tradition of ‘wisdom’ as enunciated in Proverbs 1.8 and 10.1. We are creatures dependent on all that has been handed down to us from previous generations.

Comprehensive as the Ten Commandments are, it is well to remember that when Jesus was asked to summarise the Law he also included, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22.39. Lev. 19.18.) The Old Testament has much to say about care for the poor and weak, and hospitality to the widow, orphan and stranger.

October

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 32v1-14

We may not carve and cast our gods of wood and metal but we certainly have our gods – and we pay them millions of pounds to kick a football about or to sing on stage. And when I look at the poor and the devastation of our environment I do wonder whether we are putting our money into the right pockets. Some of our gods arise from our untamed desires – the need to have all the latest gadgets – the need to outdo our neighbours in wit, or knowledge or fashion or the quality of our car. These and many others can become obsessions that dominate and drive our lives to the exclusion of considerations concerning the priority of God and care for our neighbour. It is the practice of regularly focusing on God in worship and the pondering of scripture that helps us keep matters in perspective.

God changed his mind in response to the pleading of Moses. That may seem a strange idea if we think of God as omnipotent, omniscient, absolute, holy, utterly other. But we can never see or grasp all of God at one time. We always have to say, ‘On the one hand God is like this ……. But on the other hand He is also like this.’ So without denying the omniscient, all-holy God the psalms are full of examples of imploring God to change the situation or his plan for the sake of his compassion for his people and for the sake of upholding the ‘honour of his name.’ (Ezekiel).  Jesus, of course, reflects the heart of God and is often seen being moved by compassion. On one occasion in the presence of a loved one who had died, he even wept. (John 11). Never be afraid to tell God your real feelings.

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 33v12-23

In Genesis 18 Abraham has a dialogue with God over the threatened destruction of Sodom – Would you destroy it if you found a handful of righteous people there? Abraham talks God down to ten – “Even for ten I will not destroy it.” But Lot and his family do not number as many as that and Abraham holds back from pressing the dialogue any further. He does not ask the ultimate, ‘Would you spare it for the sake of one?’ Moses by contrast wants to go the whole way. He wants to understand what the Lord is doing and he wants to be assured of the Lord’s continuing presence and favour. Moses wants a full reciprocal partnership. Moses wants to know the Lord through and through just as the Lord claims to know him. Moses was indeed privileged to know the Lord more intimately than any other character in the Old Testament. He is described as the ‘friend of  God,’ and ‘the greatest prophet.’ He is the one to whom the name of God was revealed, the one whose face shone when he communed with the Lord in the Tent of Presence, the one who laid the foundations of the faith of Israel as set out in the first five books of the Bible. To Moses was granted the vision of the compassionate heart of God – ‘compassionate, gracious, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love, forgiving rebellion, sin, and wickedness.’ (Exodus 34.6,7.) That is the faith that sustained the faithful ones of Israel right up to the time of Jesus despite all the rebellions and sins and wickedness. Yet Moses was not granted the perfection of fullness, ‘You cannot see my face.’ (Exodus 33.20.)

Jesus transfigured in glory on the mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah is the unique one who has full reciprocal partnership with God as of Son with Father.

The Last Sunday after Trinity: Deuteronomy 34v1-12

Moses is one of three Old Testament characters whose death is mysterious. In Genesis 5 we read of Enoch who “walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” In 2 Kings 2 we read of Elijah: “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses appeared … and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”  Although Moses died in the land there was never any known burial place for him as there was for Abraham in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre. We like to build memorials for the great ones who have gone before us. Admiral Lord Nelson stands on a column which is enriched with lions and fountains situated in a large open square – Trafalgar Square. It is a spacious area of peace and public freedom in a world that might otherwise be one of violence and oppression. The memorial to Moses is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. At the heart is Moses’ friendship with God: the revelation of God’s name at the burning bush, his partnership with God in securing the release of the Hebrews from slavery, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the record of God’s Presence that led Moses and his followers through the wilderness for forty years. These encounters between Moses and the LORD lie at the heart of the Torah but are embellished with further writings, especially Genesis and Deuteronomy. Here we may read and re-read at our leisure these remarkable accounts of the LORD Yahweh’s initial breakthrough into the hearts and minds of men and women. Deuteronomy 30.14 tells us, “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.” The text carries the revelation of God’s Presence within it. As we read we pray for the Holy Spirit to make God’s Presence real for us – to nourish us, to heal us, to strengthen us, to give us wisdom, to provide a purpose and meaning to our life.

September

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 12v1-14

The Israelite month always began with the viewing of a new moon. 14 days later would be full moon which was when Passover was celebrated. According to the New Testament Jesus was raised from the dead on the Sunday following Passover. Our current dating of Easter still follows this precedent – Easter falls on the Sunday that follows the first full moon occurring on or after the March equinox. At the heart of both Israelite and Christian worship there is the remembrance of something that happened in history which changed things.

“Remembrance worship” is a matter of calling to mind some significant moment in the past in such a way that what it effected then it will do for me, the worshipper, now. The Passover feast is set within the context of God rescuing a collection of slaves from Egypt and forming them into his own chosen people. Holy Communion is set within the context of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Holy Communion brings to us the graces and benefits of those Holy Historical Events. Holy Communion ministers to our most immediate and intimate needs. But it is good to remember also that we are part of an enormous world-wide movement seeking to bring the peace and compassion and righteousness of
Christ to all humankind.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 14v19-end

Here is the story that lies at the very heart of the Old Testament.

It is a story of escape from the harsh slavery under Pharaoh, a story of deliverance from imminent death at the Reed Sea, all set within a context of a powerful experience of the Presence of God. This is celebrated especially in the song of Exodus 15, one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew literature. The story continues with another spectacular appearance of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the forty years in the wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, and the eventual establishment of the great kingdoms of David and Solomon.

This history is rehearsed several times in a variety of ways in the Book of Psalms, e.g. Ps 78, 81, 105,106, 135, 136. But Israel did not just remember its history and celebrate it with their equivalent of ‘Rule Britannia,’ and ‘Land of hope and glory.’ Israel was also a group of individuals who could each sing of their own personal knowledge and experience of this same Yahweh.
“I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel, and in the night watches he instructs my heart.” (16.6)
“He makes me lie down in green pastures
And leads me beside still waters.” (23. 1,2.)
“Upon you have I leaned from my birth,” (71. 6.)
“On the day I called You answered me,
You made strength well up within me.” (138. 3.)
“Your word is a lantern to my feet, And a light to my path.” (119. 105.)
God’s presence is still made known to us today in the particular circumstances of our own personal lives.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 16v2-15

The wilderness stories of the time of Moses, remembered and handed down from the past, encouraged the Israelites in their later Babylonian exile and in the harsh and impoverished conditions they faced when they returned and began to rebuild Judah and Jerusalem. The stories also speak to us in whatever ‘wilderness’ period we might be going through. There is a complex of stories – led by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, supplied with bread and water, equipped with clothes that never wore out. In Genesis we learn how God ordered the world, separating dry land from the sea, providing birds in the air, fish in the sea and animals on the land, the sun to have dominion of the day and the moon dominion of the night. So now God orders his people in the wilderness, encamping them by tribe in ordered formation around the central tabernacle. He descends on Mount Sinai and provides them with rules and regulations. If that all sounds a bit patriarchal and military and awesome, our scriptural text shows a more intimate and compassionate side of the Lord, providing the Israelites with manna for their daily food. The people are presented as fickle and discontented and so quickly forgetting the lessons of the past. Nevertheless the Lord takes a personal interest in the words of their complaint and provides for their basic daily needs – an abundant supply of quail and daily provision of manna. The reading continues to tell us, “the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” The One who out of compassion for us like a mother provides our daily food is also the One who provides for us in a well-ordered and fair and just way.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 17v1-7

The Israelites were on their journey, following the way of the Lord, when they encountered a serious problem – there was no water. So it is with us. We are happily pursuing our church life, doing our best to follow the way of Jesus when, suddenly – a blockage across the path; perhaps a falling out with someone in church, perhaps a family crisis, a moral dilemma at work. We feel we’ve come to the end of the road. In 1 Corinthians Paul is trying to guide his fledgling congregation through a number of problems they have encountered. In Chapter 10 he uses this passage of the Old Testament to help them. He is not concerned with the issue of whether it really did happen like that for the Israelites. Rather he seeks to find a spiritual or moral message from the text. Moses had already been promised by the Lord: “I will go with you.” Paul sees the rock as a symbol of the hidden presence of Christ (of God) among his people. Paul is saying that as Moses struck the rock and water flowed out so as we call upon Christ some kind of help or guidance will be given. The Old Testament is very down to earth and answers don’t always come as a megaphone call from the blue. (Although they may do so!) But here Moses was called upon to do something that must have appeared as quite ridiculous to the grumbling crowd – strike the rock with your staff. Yes, we do need to look to God in prayer and quiet. But maybe we also need to look around us – ask advice, open the Bible … A friend of mine was working as a hairdresser and wondering what to do with his life. His eyes happened to catch sight of an advert in a customer’s newspaper for young men to test their vocation by staying a while with the Anglican Franciscans at Cerne Abbas. He went and later became a priest. You never know how God may speak to you out of the immediacy of your own particular situation in life.

August

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity: Gen. 32v22-31

Here we have Jacob returning to his homeland after some 17 years. He is about to meet Esau of whom, we presume, he has heard nothing since he deviously stole his birthright all those years ago. He is anxious, more than that, wracked with anxiety. There is no comforting ladder of angels on the way back as there was on the way out. The name ‘Jacob’  means ‘heel-grabber,’ ‘wrestler.’ Jacob wrestled in the womb, he wrestled the heavy stone off the well, he wrestled the birthright from Esau. Now he is wrestling with God, the One he promised to serve if He brought him safely back to this land. Did God really want him back here to establish the land for the descendants of his grandfather Abraham?

On our path to faith we all have God-problems to wrestle with. If God is there why doesn’t He speak more clearly? Do miracles happen? How can Jesus be both man and God? Somewhere along that path God steps in, assures us of his Presence and sends us forward with new confidence. Often this new path demands that we leave something of the old self behind. Some natural strength or habit that we have relied on in the past is set aside and we go forward in the strength of new insights and visions and zeal that God has brought to us. This is the way God dealt with Jacob when He struck him in the thigh, the way He dealt with the nation of Israel when he deprived them of their earthly king, and the way He deals with us today. Jesus is the Wounded Saviour.

A note on semi-nomads

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are semi-nomadic people. With their goats and sheep they move from one fertile area to another. Occasionally they grow corn but especially they trade with the people around them. They do not own or control the land but seek to live at peace with their neighbours. Before all else they seek to follow the ways of the LORD, bearing witness to His love and mercy. This is a way of life that we can follow.

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity: Gen. 37v1-4, 12-28

The omitted verses, 5-11, tell of Joseph’s dreams of the sheaves of corn and the stars, implying that one day Joseph’s parents and brothers would all bow down to him. Knowing the jealousy between Joseph and his brothers it may seem strange that his father should send him on an errand to his brothers in a distant place. But then Jacob himself had not been pleased with Joseph boasting about his dreams and perhaps he felt this errand would help to heal the rift. We all misjudge situations and people suffer as a result of our decisions. Sometimes we are made aware of the consequences and we can confess to God. But here events conspire to hide the truth from Jacob. Yet God works through it all. God’s purpose is to bring a blessing to all humankind through Abraham and his descendants and He will see it through despite the weakness of those involved.  Both Jacob and Joseph in their own unique ways sensed the Presence of God in their lives, responded as best they knew how, despite their failings, and thus became a part of God’s overriding purpose. ‘One step enough for me,’ said Cardinal Newman in his great hymn. We must do today what we feel God is calling us to do; at the same time we hand it over to God for Him to do with it as He will.

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity: Gen. 45v1-15

Having taken his elder brother’s birthright by deception, Joseph gathers his brothers around him and he holds no grudges. He explains how God has used the situation to bring him to Egypt and to use him to save humankind from this terrible seven years of famine. God uses Joseph to provide bread for His people to keep them alive. Later on bread will lie at the centre of the annual Passover meal. The meal will run like a golden thread down the centuries holding the Jewish people together enabling them to remember their being chosen and entrusted with the commandments of God. Jesus will then identify this bread with His own Body which is given to us as the Bread of Eternal Life. As we look back from our Eucharists today we are reminded of that original family gathering of warm brotherly love, no grudges held, all forgiven, no one shut out. We pray for the growth and realisation of that love in our own local churches and in the world wide community of churches. Bread shared within a company of love.

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Exod. 1v8 – 2.10

In the original Hebrew the book of Exodus begins with the word ‘and’ indicating it is a continuation of the story of the previous book, ‘Genesis.’ Attention focuses on God’s promise of blessing, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’ (Genesis 1.28). Unlike Sarah and Rachel who had problems about conceiving, the descendants of Israel are ‘vigorous, giving birth before the mid-wife arrives.’ This is the blessing that triggers the way of escape despite the imposition of harsh slavery. ‘Fling the boys into the Nile’ recalls the flooding of humankind at the time of Noah. Moses’ basket (tevah) is the same word as is used for Noah’s ark. As Noah floated on the water to save a remnant of humankind so Moses floated on the water to be the Saviour of his people. As Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter from among the ‘reeds,’ so Moses would one day save God’s people from the Egyptians at the Sea of ‘Reeds’ (Exodus 13.18). There is a pattern to God’s ways of dealing with us. As God acted then … and the same then … and the same then … so He deals with us today. And you never know when the stubborn faith and obedience of two ladies like Shiphrah and Puah is going to achieve such amazing social and political change.

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Exodus 3v1-15

Today we’ll just focus on the burning bush and leave reflection on the revelation of the name, YaHWeH, till another day.

It is a long way from the foot of Sinai to the top which is 7,497 ft high. Just so, Moses’ encounter with God in the bush at the foot of the mountain is far different from his encounter with God on the top of the mountain. Exodus 19 tells us of the thunder and lightning, the thick cloud, the loud trumpet blast, the mountain shook and the people quaked. The encounter at the bush is by contrast, humble, quiet and deeply personal. God appeared in a bush, not even a fine tree, let alone a grand cedar of Lebanon – a simple desert bush, probably only 2 or 3 ft high. The burning was not a roaring fire, more like the gentle flames of the brandy that does not harm the Christmas pudding. Moses experienced himself addressed by a Presence, perhaps like Jeremiah who experienced God’s word like fire in his heart yet was not destroyed by it (Jeremiah 20). As with Jeremiah, so with Moses, God promises, ‘I will go with you; and I will rescue you.’ The God of the Old Testament reveals himself as One ‘who will be with you … to bless you … and comfort you,’ but at the same time He puts you under obligation. The presence of the God  revealed in the Bible brings to birth within us the sense of ‘what I ought to do.’

July

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity: Gen. 24v34-38, 42-49, 58-end

Genesis 24 has to be one of the most lovely pieces of literature in the whole of the Old Testament. What we read today is the servant’s account to Laban of the events that the narrator has given us in the first 33 verses. There are subtle illuminating differences. The narrator tells us that Abraham had been ‘blessed in many ways: the servant spells it out – ‘flocks and herds, silver and gold …’ The servant makes no mention of the time when Abraham broke away from the clan and went his own way. Neither does the servant mention the new God, ‘God of heaven and the God of earth,’ to whom he swore obedience with his hand under the thigh of Abraham. The reason, we must surmise, is because the servant wants to create a favourable impression that will aid him in the success of his mission.

Another fact to notice – in Genesis 12.2 God promises to bless Abraham. Here we see an abundant fulfilment of that promise, not only in flocks and herds, but also the blessing of a successful mission, the blessing of answered prayer, the blessing of generous, open-hearted hospitality, the blessing of kind and considerate human relationships and, of course, the blessing of a beautiful bride for Isaac. The whole chapter oozes the charm and beauty of paradise in which we can bathe ourselves as we read it over and over again. We might note the servant’s attitude in v21 who was staring, wondering whether the Lord had granted him success in his mission after he had just witnessed Rebekah’s heroic feat bustling back and forth to satisfy the needs of ten thirsty camels. I mean, come on, how much more proof did he want!? So often we are blind to the presence and glory of God all around us. Notice too the way Laban eyes the expensive jewellery (v30). Is that a clue to the character that will be revealed later in his shady dealings with Jacob? (See Trinity 7.)

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity: Gen. 25v19-end

These lovely stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are probably built on oral legends reaching back to the 1800s BC (although there were no camels in Canaan at that time). Written up sometime between Solomon and the fall of Jerusalem, they would have been edited into their final form during or after the exile in Babylonia (ended 520 BC). They are a kind of overture to the rest of the Bible, setting the scenes and themes of much that is yet to come.

Esau is the ancestor of the Edomites. The conflict in the womb with Jacob continues historically with the conflict between the Israelites and Edomites right down to the time of psalm 137 during the exile. The boorish behaviour of Esau is given away in his speech and in his mannerisms. He abruptly asks, ‘give me.’ There is no ‘please.’ Jacob’s broth is ‘that red stuff,’ and his manner of eating, ‘he ate, he drank, he rose, he went.’ No graciousness. No ‘Thank you.’ Jacob is the ‘humble’ one, the servant of Isaiah 42 who ‘will not shout out.’ It is the humble who will be chosen by God to fulfil his purposes (Matthew 5.5) exemplified in Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper.

As Jacob was chosen in the womb so will Jeremiah claim he was chosen in the womb and so too psalm 139 marvels at the care God exercises over us in the womb. So often God is working in our life and we are not aware of it. But next week Jacob will be made aware!

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity: Gen. 28v10-19a

Having taken his elder brother’s birthright by deception, Jacob is now fleeing from Esau in fear of his life. Jacob had left the security of his home; he was in an unfamiliar place, alone, and he had to sleep out in the open. How does it feel to be all alone, facing an unknown future with no familiar friends around you? In these circumstances God came to Jacob in the night and spoke to him through a dream. Not one of those dreams where you think back and wonder what it was all about – this was a dream that left Jacob with a strong sense of God’s presence and protection. Later, God would make a promise to Moses as he set off on his wilderness wanderings, “My Presence will go with you.” (Exodus 33.14). So, too, Jesus at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, at his last Resurrection appearance, promises his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Expect God to give you a sense of his presence. Ask Him to fulfil his promise. Sometimes the sense will be deep, long and lasting. Sometimes the sense will be gone by the next day. Jacob ‘set up a pillar.’ You could ‘set up a pillar’ when you feel God has drawn close to you in a special way by writing a few words in a spiritual diary. In this way you say, “I believe God spoke to me in this way.” You affirm that God continues to speak as He has spoken for thousands of years. When you are tempted to dismiss it as ‘only my imagination’ you can think back and re-read what you wrote. Often the memory will grow stronger and more significant as the years go by and becomes a source of spiritual sustenance.

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity: Gen 29v15-28

In the morning after his wedding night Jacob discovered that his uncle, Laban, had given his elder daughter, Leah, to him as wife rather than the ‘beautiful’ younger daughter, Rachel. Sometimes it is those very close to us who pull a fast one over us and we feel very hurt as Jacob did. Like Laban they have their reasons and there is little we can do. They reached a compromise; Jacob received Rachel as wife by the end of the week but he had to labour for another seven years. Sometimes there just seems no end to the fix we find ourselves in. Jacob was sufficiently worldly-wise to know eventually how to break away from the unjust hold that Laban had over him. I am reminded of Jesus’ parable of the ‘shrewd manager’ (Luke 16). It’s not an easy parable to understand and there appear to be several attempts at explanation following it. In v8 we read, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Sometimes we do not avail ourselves of all the wisdom and counsel that is available to us through Christian tradition and fellowship.

Adolescents growing up, seeking their life’s work, seeking a partner or no partner, seeking a purpose in life, leaving home and setting out, can leave a big empty emotional space in the hearts of their parents. The ups and downs and heartbreaks of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – their scheming and separations and reconciliations, can help to place our own challenges in a wider perspective. There is no heartbreak God cannot heal, no separation He cannot re-unite, no dead-end where He will not provide a way of escape. One text that has been close to my heart all my Christian life is: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” It is amazing how answers come to lift us out of our darkness and pain and anxiety. Praise God!

June

This month I have chosen one of the psalms appointed for each
Sunday.

Trinity Sunday: Psalm 8

If you are reading this you probably already have a love for Jesus and draw strength from his words and are attracted to his life of care and compassion. St John, in his Gospel, describes Jesus as the Word, “who was with God at the beginning, and without whom nothing was made that was made.” That is not so easy to believe. Jesus, co-Creator with God at the beginning of time? What does that mean? It means that in his life we see Jesus exercising the same kind of power that God exercised when He created the world. This is most clearly seen in those ‘more difficult to believe events,’ such as when Jesus raises the dead to life. But all the healing events are “life-giving” and this is the work of a Creator. The psalmist in today’s psalm marvels at the works of creation, its diversity and magnificence. He also marvels at the creation of humankind and the many gifts God has blessed them with. To say that Jesus is the Son of the Father who created all things is to marvel at Jesus in the same way that we marvel at the One who made all things. We see in Jesus something that goes beyond normal human experience. Jesus is not just one among many several exceptionally gifted men. No, there is some way in which He stands distinct and above and beyond all others who have ever lived. Most of the time his human living camouflages his true divine self. But there are times when his
true self shines through. Peter and James and John were knocked back by such realisation when they ‘saw’ the other side of Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. The Centurion when he saw how Jesus died bore witness, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” As we ponder the words and life of Jesus we pray that our hearts and minds may be enlightened to see Jesus for Who He really is and to adore Him and worship Him in awe and wonder. And the psalms give us words with which we may do that. Recite the psalm for yourself, understanding that Jesus is our ‘Lord and Governor.’

The First Sunday after Trinity: Psalm 116

Here is a wonderful psalm that can be used as a preparation for coming to Communion on a Sunday. It begins with a thanksgiving for bringing me to know Him. Maybe I was born into a Christian family and a church environment and have always known the Lord or maybe He met me part way through life and brought me into the church family. Whichever way or other way, thank Him for that. As we try to follow the Way of the Lord we each have our own stories of when we needed to call on the Lord, how He answered us, how He blessed me with his peace and his love and led me safely through some ups and downs. Thank Him for this. Now (v8) the psalm encourages me to make a decision to continue to follow His ways. Then (v10) I am encouraged to consider what I should pay back to the Lord
for all He has done for me. Everything I have is His so in one sense I cannot pay Him back but I can do what He asks, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Eucharist is the Greek word for thanksgiving. The Eucharist is the way we all gather together to thank the Lord for all He has done for us. We ‘lift up the cup of salvation.’ (v11) And now, strengthened by the Lord I can fulfil my vows, ‘To love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my mind and with all my soul and with all my strength; and love my neighbour as myself.’ This is my ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving.’ (v15)

Exodus 20v1-4, 7-9, 12-20.

The Ten Commandments, sandwiched between two descriptions of the ‘thunder, lightning, trumpet sound and smoke’ that accompanied their presentation, are clearly meant to be of great significance. These are the conditions of a partnership (covenant, testament) between the LORD and his people. They are remarkably comprehensive in their scope. The LORD has done his part, rescuing the people from Egypt; now they must do their part.

Vv 2-8 call on the people to put the LORD first, elsewhere summarised as, ‘Worship the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ (Deut. 6.5.)

The prohibition of murder, adultery and theft are recognised by virtually all nations as basic human rights.

Any system of justice is undermined by people bearing false witness which is why perjury is a serious offence.

In case we are tempted to just ‘put on a good show’ and just follow the letter of the law the tenth commandment reminds us that what counts is where the heart is. The commandments are not setting us up before a human court, but setting us up before the face of the LORD. How are we measuring up as his partner?

Honouring father and mother is a bit different. The words point us to the fundamentals of the whole Old Testament tradition of ‘wisdom’ as enunciated in Proverbs 1.8 and 10.1. We are creatures dependent on all that has been handed down to us from previous generations.

Comprehensive as the Ten Commandments are, it is well to remember that when Jesus was asked to summarise the Law he also included, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22.39. Lev. 19.18.) The Old Testament has much to say about care for the poor and weak, and hospitality to the widow, orphan and stranger.

The Third Sunday after Trinity: Psalm 13

The literary style, “How long … ? How Long … ? …
throws emphasis on to the second half of the phrase.
What the psalmist is actually saying is something like –
“You’ve forgotten me!
You won’t look at me!
I’m really anxious.
I’m depressed.
Everyone’s getting the better of me!”
We can be completely free and open with God. We can tell Him exactly how we feel, however angry we may feel at the way we imagine He has treated us. The psalms wonderfully search out all our dark corners and hiding places and shameful moments and enable us to lay ourselves open to God so that He may refresh us and give us a new start. The reason for this is given in v5, “I will rejoice in your salvation.” Right from the time when He clothed Adam and Eve outside the garden of Eden the Lord has a long record of saving his people from calamity. He rescues, heals, restores, offers new opportunities, blesses, calls and endows with gifts. As we look back and consider all that the Lord has done; as we look around and see all He is doing now, then we can join with the psalmist in saying, ‘Despite all I’m going through at the moment, “I put my trust in your steadfast love.”’
The post-communion collect for today describes God as One “whose beauty is beyond our imagining,” and “whose power we cannot comprehend.” We need to hold on to these assurances.

May

The Fourth Sunday of Easter: Genesis 7

The message of the Bible is that planet earth is essentially good, supplying us with food to eat, water to drink, air to breathe, light and warmth and many other blessings. Moreover humankind, “made in the image of God,” is enriched especially with wisdom and love, enabling us to manage life and find satisfaction. But men and women tend to seek fulfilment of their own self-centred desires and the blessedness of Paradise remains as only a dream. We read, “ The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created— But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord.”

A recurring theme of the Bible is that however bad things become, God always arranges a way of escape for a ‘remnant’ so that his purposes of love and goodness may eventually be fulfilled. Noah in his ark, with his family, floating on the surface of the waters is a powerful pictorial symbol of this theme. Perhaps you have felt something of the power of this way of escape in recent weeks as you have Skyped or Zoomed on your screens with your family or a small group of friends or, maybe, found that ‘room’ where you may ‘pray to your Father in secret.’ You will have drawn strength and encouragement to ride out the storm of the coronavirus.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter: Genesis 8v1-19

Writing in the middle of April it is impossible to know how we might be feeling about coronavirus in the middle of May. But right now we are beginning to ask questions as to how long the lockdown will go on for and how shall we set about easing it when the time comes. I am amazed at the way in which these soul-searchings and anxieties are reflected in the story of Noah. Noah would have known that the rain had stopped and that the Ark had come to rest on a mountain top. But he had no means of looking down on the earth below. He only had one small upward facing window. So it was a matter of ‘How long, O Lord?’ as he sent out first the raven and later the dove until at last he had the evidence of a freshly plucked olive leaf. Even then he waited another seven days. Patience is one of the ‘fruits of the Spirit.’ (Gal.5.22)

The Sixth Sunday of Easter: Genesis 8v20 – 9v17

 The climax of the story of the Flood is of God setting up the rainbow in the heavens. The symbol of the rainbow has become part of our culture and is currently displayed in many windows and public places as a sign of hope for life after Covid-19. In the story of Noah the rainbow is the sign of a covenant between God and all living creatures that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

God is promising that from the time of Noah onward the earth’s environment will be manageable with a rational order that is reliable – “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.” In contrast with the creation narratives of surrounding nations the biblical accounts have no unpredictable spirits living in caves or forests, no evil monsters lurking in the depths of the ocean. Thus it came about in the course of time that the biblical belief in the basic goodness of material things and the belief that all things were made and arranged according to some rational plan provided a springboard for the rise of Western Science. Scientists explore the environment in the belief that there are logical and rational reasons behind the various naturally occurring events. They also have the belief that if the human race is racked with some terrible affliction, such as the current Covid-19, a cure can be found. And governments invest huge sums to support such enquiries, and individuals dedicate lifetimes to such enquiries. And we should stand amazed and praise the Lord that so often such faith and dedication is rewarded in wonderful ways.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter: Ezekiel 36v24-28

At the heart of Israelite religion lay obedience to the Ten Commandments communicated to Moses. Many people may feel they can tick off several, “I don’t do this; I don’t do that; and that no longer applies in this day and age.” But the one that gets us all is “Thou shalt not covet ……………”. It strikes at the very heart. Oh, yes … we all desire a little bit more of something that is not good for us, or is not right for us, or is not conducive to the common good. Covetousness reflects what we read in Genesis 7, “every inclination of the thoughts of (human) hearts was only evil continually.” The prophet Ezekiel realised it was no use just going on shouting at people to do the right thing. Either people take no notice or they find they have no strength of will or if they have some strength of will they cannot maintain it for ever. The only answer is, there has to be a change of heart. And that can only be done by the LORD. So Ezekiel foretells the time when God will change human hearts by setting his spirit within them. The prophet Joel foretells the same when he prophesies of ‘those days’ when “I (the LORD) will pour out my Spirit on all people.” The prophecy came true on the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of the LORD Jesus Christ. We pray that that may be true also in our own heart. We can all pray with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer the one great hymn he did translate into English in our Book of Common Prayer, “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire.” Pray it all your life that He may keep on touching and transforming your life.

Day of Pentecost. Numbers 11v24-30

The New Testament reveals God as eternally One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This enables us to look back on the Old Testament and see signs of the Trinity there that would not have been apparent before the coming of Christ. As we look back we can see that the Spirit was poured out on a number of leaders but not on the people as a whole. The Book of Judges tells of a period when Israel was led by individuals raised up by the Spirit in times of crisis – men such as Gideon and Samson. The prophets also were filled with the Spirit and even King Saul was numbered among them. We see an erratic and unpredictable power at work in all this which is well illustrated in the event narrated in Numbers 11. The Lord gathered seventy elders together to share the Spirit given to Moses for leadership. The ceremony takes place but then two who did not attend the occasion were found to be prophesying. Joshua felt this was out of order and wanted them stopped. But Moses replied, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” This we see fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. So, at creation we see the God of order, arranging the universe according to a meaningful pattern: at Pentecost we see the God of disorder, breaking out in new ways, distributing a variety of gifts among his people. The current search for a vaccine is a matter both of knowledge of the rational logic of biological science combined with an erratic process of trial and error – suppose we try this? – what happens if this? The doctrine of the Trinity makes a unity of what would otherwise appear to be disharmony and conflict. Our God is big enough to cope with every eventuality.

April

Palm Sunday: Isaiah 50v4-9a

The reading is one of four so-called ‘servant songs.’  The others are Isaiah 42:1–4; Isaiah 49:1–6; and Isaiah 52:13–53:12. After the monarchy came to an end in 586 BC with the exile into Babylonia, the Israelites began to wonder how the Lord would fulfil his promise of providing a successor for all time on the throne of David. Prophets began to speak of ‘One who would come,’ a Messiah (The Anointed One). They wondered what form he might take – a leader like Moses, a King like David, a suffering prophet like Jeremiah? In these four songs Isaiah speaks of a ‘servant’ in terms which remarkably foreshadow the person we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

In Isaiah 42, the servant is a Spirit-filled man with a heart for the hurt and broken and wounded. In Isaiah 49, the servant is not only the rescuer of Israel but also one who will bring a blessing to all peoples, ‘a light to the nations.’ Isaiah 50 presents us with a servant who is a teacher and who persists in his calling despite opposition. Isaiah 53 is the remarkable foreshadowing of all the suffering that Christ voluntarily endured upon the cross – the once-for-all-time sacrifice that wins for us the gift of eternal life. Spend time during Holy Week reading and pondering these four passages. Thank Jesus for all he has done for us, ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.45). Thank the Lord for those who persist in their service during this time of coronavirus – medics, food suppliers, essential services, politicians, …, and many volunteers and kindly neighbours. Pray for their protection.

Easter Day: Jeremiah 31v1-6

Easter is the church’s season of rejoicing. ‘Alleluia’ replaces the Lenten ‘Lord, have mercy.’ And it is not just one day. Eastertide lasts a whole seven weeks – the Paschal Candle which we light during the Easter Vigil service is re-lit for all services right up to Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Easter. The Old Testament celebrates many occasions when God’s people were rescued from dire straits where hope seemed almost lost. Foremost among these are:- the deliverance from slavery in Egypt; the deliverance from the threat of the Philistines and the establishment of the monarchy under David; and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile in Babylonia. These are worthy of celebration in their own right as Jeremiah foretells in today’s passage. But they also tell us what God is like. YHWH is a rescuer, a saviour; and not only historically but also personally. God also rescues the faithful disciple from whatever dire straits he or she may have fallen into. God will bring us also through this time of coronavirus.

We see this work of God enacted in the life of Jesus especially in his healing ministry. We read of Jesus rescuing people from all kinds of sickness, impairment, social marginalisation, oppression and the like. Jesus brought new hope into peoples’ lives. He lifted them out of their sense of helplessness and insignificance and gave them new strength and a sense of purpose in life. This wonderful new life that Jesus brought we celebrate at Easter. Maybe we shall not be able to gather together for worship this Easter but many clergy are offering ministry through Parish websites and YouTube. As we call upon the Lord and draw close to Jesus in faith we find that he takes our fears and pains and anxieties from us. We are given the hope of travelling with him through death to a life of glory. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit we are promised a foretaste of that glory even now wherever we are in this life.

The Second Sunday of Easter: Exodus 14v10-end; 15v20-21

The deliverance from Egypt of the Hebrew slaves is for the Jews the defining moment of their faith just as the death and resurrection of Jesus is the defining moment of the Christian Faith. The Jewish Passover celebrates the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Christian ‘Paschal Festival’ (Good Friday – Easter Day) celebrates the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Let us not dwell too much upon the question of the historical accuracy of the Red (Reed?) Sea Event except to say that the Israelites had to come from somewhere before occupying Canaan and if they escaped from slavery that would have been a momentous event.

Freedom from slavery is the key idea. Even today slavery in our own society still continues, perhaps as street workers, poorly paid farm workers or domestics. ‘Hope for Justice’ and ‘Love Justice’ are just two charities working for the release of the enslaved.

But all of us have some kind of experience of ‘enslavement’ to addiction, or bad habits or besetting sins. However hard we try we often feel powerless. Perhaps we feel some Pharaoh-like power, some dark oppressing presence holding us in its grip. Maybe the fear of the coronavirus pandemic grips you in this way – maybe you just want to hide under the blanket until it has all gone away. The Lord, speaking through Moses, encourages the people to look up and follow the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. The Lord will teach them and train them as he leads them through the wilderness. Now is the time to explore our Bibles and our faith and the lives of the saints. No generation has ever had so much information available in books, on-line, and as audio. Many Africans during their enslavement in North America and the Caribbean learnt their Bibles and created their Gospel songs preparing for their day of freedom. Now they can be heard leading ‘Songs of Praise’ from many parts of our country. As Miriam sang a song of deliverance for the Israelites so do the Afro-Caribbeans sing their songs of deliverance today.

The Third Sunday of Easter: Psalm 116

This psalm is a beautiful song of deliverance from some frightening or close-to-death experience. Maybe it was a serious illness; maybe a perilous situation in battle. The psalmist was aware of a remarkable deliverance or recovery which he attributes to God. Maybe, in these uncertain times, you know of someone who has just passed through a similar experience. The psalm indicates that it is always helpful to see our own experiences of deliverance as a personal reliving in a small way of the great experiences that are the defining moments of our faith. Maybe coronavirus is our own ‘Red Sea’ experience, our own seemingly unending ‘wandering in the  wilderness,’ our own ‘exile in Babylonia.’ We may see ourselves as protected through the plagues, saved from the chariots, watched over by an angel and brought into a new way of life under Moses. Or we may feel we’ve endured some small part of the sufferings of Christ and have been re-empowered with an encounter with the Risen Christ or an infilling of the Holy Spirit. As we pray ourselves into these ideas we become part of the story of God’s people. We, too, like the psalmist will want to ‘repay’ the Lord and serve him. The Church’s Eucharist is the Great Thanksgiving where we can receive the ‘cup of salvation’ so that week by week we are built up as a ‘living stone’ into God’s Temple and find the work to which he calls us.

(Note. YHWH represents the four Hebrew consonants of the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. The Jews always regarded the name as too holy to be spoken aloud and the English translation of what they read aloud is LORD.)

March

First Sunday of Lent: Gen. 2v15-17, 3v1-7

In the midst of the Garden of Eden was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Where do our ideas of ‘good and evil’ come from and our ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Are we born with them? Do we learn them from our parents, or perhaps our school? Are we all taught the same things? Do all cultures and religions have the same moral standards? We learn from experience which foods are good for us and which are bad. We learn from experience or observation that it is not good to jump off a cliff. Kings soon learnt that it is wise either to suppress the poor or to provide for them otherwise they might rise up and cause trouble. But there is nothing in nature or in human society that of itself tells us what we ‘ought’ to do. In practice, as individuals, we decide on our own standards; as family or cultural groups we conform to some commonly accepted codes and standards; as nations we create codes of law and standards and uphold them with courts of justice. The Bible presents us with the idea that there is a God, that He created all things, that He has a purpose of good for all humankind but that certain values have to be understood and maintained if humankind is to achieve peace and harmony and justice and happiness. Humankind is called to seek the Lord, to discover his ways and to live them. This is the way that leads to the blessedness that God freely bestows on his creation (Gen.1.28).

The Second Sunday of Lent: Genesis 12v1-4a

The parents of Abram (later Abraham) were part of a migration from the ancient civilization of Ur, up the Euphrates valley to Haran which is close to the present day border between Syria and Turkey. This seems to reflect the times of about 1800BC in that part of the world. It was at Haran that Abram heard the call of God to travel south to a foreign land (Canaan) and to be the means of God bringing a blessing to all the nations of the world. Abram’s act of obedience is in marked contrast to the general way of humankind as described in Genesis 6.5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” Adam and Eve, Cain, the people of Noah’s generation, and then the builders of the tower of Babel all sought to do their own thing and seek their own glory. Abram’s obedience sets the direction for the rest of the Bible – the way in which God will call people in every generation to be a means of blessing to their environment and to the people among whom they live. This must be our fundamental orientation towards life – a selfless love and caring concern for the planet on which we live and all who share it with us. Without this basic attitude all other concerns whether religious or otherwise will be distorted.

It is right that we should be concerned for the ‘rights of the individual’ but that must be balanced against each individual’s responsibility for the ‘common good.’

It is, perhaps, an interesting thought that God began with a seventy-five year old.

The Third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 17v1-7

“They journeyed by stages as the LORD commanded.” The forty years wandering in the wilderness may be considered as a time when God prepares and trains his people to be ready to possess the Promised Land. It is a time of learning to put God first and to trust him: trust him to provide water from the rock; trust him to provide the daily manna, just the right amount for each one. It is a time of learning to follow the way of the LORD, moving when the pillar of cloud or fire moves, staying still when the pillar lingers in one place. It is a time for exploring the ten commandments and discovering how to practice them in daily life. Lent is an opportunity to set aside time to read and explore and ponder what life is all about.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent 1 Sam. 16v1-13

The prophet Samuel appears to have been pleased with the choice of Saul as King because, “Saul (was) a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (2 Sam.9.2). All the signs seemed to be favourable and the Spirit fell upon him. But Saul made a big mistake on one occasion when he grew impatient with Samuel’s delay and offered the sacrifice himself. (1 Sam.13.9). So often it is a failure to put the Lord first and to obey his word. Samuel is now called to find a successor to Saul and this time the LORD makes clear, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Ezek. 37v1-14

Ezekiel is living among his fellow Jews who have been exiled from Judah to Babylonia. Jerusalem has been razed to the ground (586BC). The anger of the Jews is expressed in psalm 137 where we read how the Jews desired revenge against those who threw their babies to their deaths on the rocks below the walls of Jerusalem

Their despair is expressed in psalm 88. They feel cast out of this world, engulfed in a frightening darkness, overwhelmed by an uncontrollable storm of God’s anger, and left without a friend in the world.

The exiles might well have decided that their hope for Jerusalem becoming a centre of peace and justice for the whole world was all some great delusion. Has not this whole God-thing been a great fantasy? No doubt many did think and feel like that. But Ezekiel and some of his co-patriot priests did not give in. They continued to believe in the LORD God, his promise to Abraham, his appearance to Moses, his continuing presence through worship and the commandments. They believed that God was working some good purpose through the present pain and darkness. Ezekiel in this wondrous vision of the valley of dry bones expresses the hope that after this time of testing there will be restoration of life in Jerusalem and God’s light will shine again.

It is good to pause and wonder how it is that the Jews survived the 70 years exile in Babylon, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and the horrendous holocaust of WWII. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs’ latest book ‘Morality’ expresses the continuing hope that Judeo-Christian biblical morality can still transform our world for the better.

February

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Psalm 24

There are three parts to this psalm.

Vv 1-2. Imagine you are in beautiful countryside, the sun is shining, you’re breathing the pure air of Worcestershire, and you have a tree above you for shade. Lounging there it is easy to be lulled into the sense that all is well with the world. But that is a false impression. In reality, trees die, air becomes polluted, fires rage and floods drown. “The earth is the Lord’s,” proclaims the psalm. The biblical view is that the only reason there is any sense of security about life is because there is a Lord who is good and who holds back the threatening powers of ‘the seas and the rivers.’ These words refer to the primeval ‘deep’ of Genesis 1.2 and are metaphors for the many powers that threaten to ‘undo’ the goodness that the Lord built into his creation. So we look to the Lord for solutions to our troubles.

Vv 3-6. We, then, are part of that vast company of God-seekers throughout the world who seek a face-to-face with God (ascend the hill of the Lord) to find solutions to such troubles as environmental crisis, terrorism and crippling illnesses. We seek the ‘wisdom’ that God Himself has built into his creation (Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31).  But we are aware of our own soiled condition, our weakness, our unworthiness in the sight of God. Who are we to presume to ‘ascend’ to the presence of God? Our only hope is for God to come to us.

Vv 7-10. We implore the Lord to come in through ‘the gates.’ For the Israelites of Solomon’s times that would have meant the gates of the Temple of Jerusalem. People sought the Lord’s Presence in the ‘holy of holies.’ Paul teaches (1 Cor.3.16) that since the death and resurrection of Jesus each one of us is a temple of God where God’s Spirit dwells. So through the psalm we are telling the Lord that we are opening the doors of our hearts and minds and bodies that He might come in and speak his word to us. Who is this Lord? He is the Lord of hosts – that is the One who rescued Israel from the Egyptians, who sustained them in the wilderness, who conquered their enemies in the Promised Land, the One who is ‘for’ them. So too He is the One who has raised up our churches, called us into a fellowship, probably already given us some personal token of his love. He has proved his goodness and trustworthiness and his willingness to come down to our level. The psalm is chosen for today so that we, like Anna and Simeon, might welcome Jesus into our world, into our life, our heart, our mind. We can rely on Him.

The Third Sunday before Lent: Isaiah 58v1-9a

Is not this the fast that I choose:
…. to let the oppressed go free, …
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, …

Denying myself chocolates and luxuries, setting aside more time for prayer, making a sacrificial monetary offering – all these are good time honoured practices for Lent. But they are not ends in themselves. They are intended to help me turn aside from my worldly desires and pleasures and to find time and energy to review the righteousness of my daily living. How do I treat my friends and my family, my workmates, my neighbours? How do I apportion my time, my money, my energy? What are my priorities? Do I just go along with the crowd? Do I just follow my passions and feelings?  Or do I search the scriptures to seek a God-given way of life, to hear what He might be asking of me? Do I seek the blessing of God or do I seek the passing pleasures of the world, the flesh and the devil? What steps might I plan to take this Lent to help me in this pursuit?

The Second Sunday before Lent: Genesis 1v1 – 2v3

Rarely do we hear the whole of Genesis 1 read aloud in church. Yet it is one of the world’s finest pieces of literature. Take time to read it thoughtfully all the way through (right up to Genesis 2.3) or get someone else to read it to you. The Old Testament was written that it might be read aloud and heard. Now get up and get out and experience nature. Feel the bite of the frost, be dazzled by the brilliant low-lying wintry sun. Look for the signs of spring, a bud, a shoot of new growth, a lamb. Plunge with your surfboard into the waves, climb a mountain, make a collection of leaves, cultivate your flowers and your vegetables. Go on a safari and encounter the wild lions and elephants. If you can no longer do these things, sit back in your chair and explore your world of memories. Consider moments when nature ‘spoke to you.’ Write down a few words or phrases describing how you felt then. Try to re-live the moment. Try to put these words together in a little poem of your own making.

Try to recapture the experience of what it means to be a child of nature. Say sorry for the terrible mess we have made of it. Pray that we might treasure and be faithful stewards of the environment he has entrusted to us.

The collect for today prays, ‘Teach us to discern your hand in all your works.’ I believe the painter van Gogh had a sense of this Presence in his later art – the thrill and energy of God radiating out from his brilliant yellow sunflowers and vibrating with wavy lines his trees and skies and fields. So too, Joseph Addison must have sensed the Presence when he wrote – ‘the spangled heavens …  In reason’s ear they all rejoice …  the hand that made us is divine.’ Chris Tomlin’s ‘Indescribable,’ is a good modern song on the theme of God’s presence in nature.

The Sunday next before Lent: Exodus 24v12-end

Worship God: no idols: no swearing: have a day of rest: respect your parents: no murder: no adultery: no stealing: no lying: no coveting. In those pre-papyrus days something like this must have been the ten short words engraved on the Israelites’ sacred stones. At the heart of Israel was this moral code that curbed even the power of kings. There were always prophets ready to defend these principles of righteousness. The code was not of human origin as a rational approach to the challenges of life. The code derived from times when Moses had stood in the Presence of God. It is, I would suggest, a vision of perfection, akin to the vision of God’s righteousness uniting the nations of the world (Isaiah 2.2-4) and the vision of the Paradise of Peace (Isaiah 11.6-9). It is a vision that can only be aspired to by the grace and gifts of God. We need God’s wisdom (Proverbs 8) to know how to apply the ‘words’ to particular situations.

Last week I suggested you might get out into the world of nature. This week I invite to find some quiet corner where you can be alone with God. Take these ten ‘words’ and ponder them in His Presence. Experience them as controlling powers in your life to which you bend for the sake of God. What would it have been like for Moses spending forty days and nights in God’s presence and, indeed, for Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness? How does that change your view of the world? What inner resources and strengths do you find that you never knew you had?

January

Epiphany

Epiphany (January 6th) is the Feast Day of the Wise Men, led by a star, coming to visit the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Epiphany is the Greek New Testament word for ‘shine a light on’ and hence ‘reveal’ or ‘manifest.’ It is associated with times when the glory of Jesus was revealed, especially :– the star over Bethlehem, the dove descending at his baptism, changing water into wine at Cana, his transfiguration on the mountain.

The Old Testament readings for this January season of Epiphany all explore the symbol of light. ‘Light’ is probably the most fundamental and universal symbol associated with the divine: to see not only with the eyes but also with the heart and mind, and to ‘see’ the meaning and significance of something.

In the Bible ‘light’ is the first of all created things. Exodus 27.21 tells how the sons of Aaron were commanded to keep a lamp burning in the Temple all through the hours of darkness.

The New Testament presents Jesus as the ‘Light of the world,’ and in the heavenly Jerusalem at the end of time, “The city does not need the sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb (Jesus) is its lamp.”

It is Isaiah who spells out the significance of this symbolism.

The Second Sunday of Christmas (Epiphany): Isaiah 60v1-6.

I remember mid-May 1945 when all the blackout curtains came down, all the street lights came on, and coloured neon signs illuminated Piccadilly Circus. We had moved from war to peace. The Israelites in 538 BC started moving from exile in Babylonia to freedom in Jerusalem. Both moved into situations of environmental ruination but hearts had been touched, hope was born, dreams were coming true, and nothing now seemed impossible. Such is the experience of discovering the Living God – life is transformed, there is love for everyone, life is good and rewarding. Light is a symbol of this experience of having been moved from a bad situation to a good situation.

Vv3-4 – no longer belittled but now recognised for your real worth; no longer left alone, but now welcomed into the group. V5 God’s promise is not just for subsistence living but for abundant living. God drives away the darkness of gloom and depression. “Ask, and you will receive.” (Matthew 7.7).

The Baptism of Christ: Isaiah 42v1-9

This is the first of four so-called ‘servant songs’ that appear in the Book of Isaiah. The second one is appointed for next Sunday; the third is Isaiah 50. 4-7; the fourth is Isaiah 52. 13 – 53 end, generally read on Good Friday.

The overriding concern of the Old Testament is righteousness (justice) = the concern that life should be ‘fair’ to everyone. The servant is to establish righteousness, not by force, but with gentleness and sensitivity, being aware of the weaknesses and limitations of human nature. The servant is to be a light to all nations, showing and teaching people everywhere how to build a fair community. Knocking down the prison walls, the servant will enlarge the horizons of people’s lives and heighten their aspirations – they will see beyond their current self-imposed boundaries. Where the people could not see their way through the dark jungle of knotty problems the servant will shine a light and reveal a path.

The Second Sunday of Epiphany: Isaiah 49v1-7

This is the second ‘servant song’ to appear in the Book of Isaiah. Up till now God’s finest servants, even like Abraham and Moses and Samuel and David, have failed to bring peace and righteousness and the blessing of well-being even to the Israelites, let alone to all nations as promised to Abraham. The servant feels weighed down with the way things have gone, one disaster after another, betrayal upon betrayal, each one seeking their own good, none having concern for fairness and the common good.

The servant knows the inner renewing powers of the Living Lord. The servant sees the immediate needs but sees the wider concerns as well, a mission reaching to all sorts and conditions of people in every nation from now until the end of time. Israel was always a small, impoverished and militarily weak nation set among the greater powers of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome, yet her prophets were enthused with this vision of bringing fairness and peace and blessing and well-being to all the peoples of the earth.

God is concerned that we find personal happiness in our own situation, with our family and friends, at work, at church. But He also wants us to share our gifts with the wider community, our nation, and our world – serving the needs where darkness persists.

The Third Sunday of Epiphany.: Isaiah 9v1-4

Zebulun and Naphthali occupied the Northwest area of the territory of the 12 tribes, between the Lake of Galilee and the Mediterranean sea, and otherwise known as ‘Galilee of the nations.’ This area was oppressed quite early on by the Canaanites until Deborah and Barak came to the rescue (Judges 4 and 5). A generation later the land was more severely oppressed by the Midianites from the Southeast. Gideon achieved a spectacular victory, establishing a period of peace and well-being. The prophet speaks of another time of oppression, either in the present or in times to come, when the Lord will again deliver his people more spectacularly than Gideon did and re-establish the blessings of Paradise. (Think of Paradise as a parallel universe separated from us with dividing doors which can be opened by Jesus so that we can receive the blessings.) The symbol of light dispelling darkness is used to describe the transition from a life of pain and despair to one of great joy and happiness and well-being.

Midianites were descendants of Abraham by his second wife Keturah. They were nomadic Arabs and appear to have seduced the Israelites into following false gods. Gideon’s first move was to break down the altar of Baal and re-establish an altar to YHWH (the LORD God who appeared to Moses). This would be a good time to reflect on the first commandment – “Worship the LORD your God with all your heart and mind, and with all your soul and strength.”

2019

These are all prophecies of hope given during times of distress. The earlier period of distress was when Assyria was making trouble for Israel and eventually conquered the Northern Kingdom. The later period was when Babylonia invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah and took the population into exile. The hope is always for something more than the restoration of what has been lost. There is always a yearning for something better than anything that has ever been known so far.

December

The First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 2v1-5

There is a parallel version of this prophecy in Micah 4. 1-5 which I commented on in November. Both prophecies conclude with the resolution to walk in the ways of the LORD God. But who is this LORD? The word ‘God’ means different things to different people. That is why the Old Testament uses ‘LORD’ (one large capital letter (L) followed by three small capital letters (ORD)). This is a distinctive spelling to represent the distinctive understanding of the word ‘God’ that is presented to us through the Old Testament.

LORD represents the name YHWH (= I AM WHO I AM) who appeared to Moses at the burning bush. This God YHWH spoke to Moses, so we can learn something about God from the Ten Commandments and other words of Moses. He is also believed to be the One who chose and guided the Israelites, so we can learn something of God from the ups and downs of their history. Also He is believed to be the Creator of heaven and earth, so we can learn something of God through observation of the universe and nature. The New Testament completes the revelation of God through the coming of Jesus. We explore the Bible in order to explore the meaning of the word ‘God.’

The Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11v1-10

When a king dies, especially if he was a good king, there is a period of national insecurity until the new king has established himself. There is always therefore concern for the birth of an heir who will live up to the demands of his high calling. Isaiah expresses the hope for an Ideal Ruler – a man of wisdom, ruling in righteousness, unbiased in judgment, maintaining peace and prosperity. The passage expresses the hope that this Ideal Ruler will establish a Paradise of Perfect Peace and Harmony in the world of Nature.    Christians see this prophecy fulfilled in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 35v1-10

Historically the hope is for a glorious return of the exiles from Babylonia to re-establish themselves in Judah and Jerusalem. That hope contains an element of the miraculous and the expectation of a restoration of Paradise.

The rejoicing of the desert in v1 and the rejoicing of the people in v10 form an envelope structure containing a poem of great beauty. Here is a poetic description of the Lord’s ability and willingness to transform the worst of situations into the best we can ever imagine. Work your way slowly through the many contrasts – strengthen the weak; the lame shall leap; burning sand shall become a pool. Which image speaks to you? Ask God to work that grace in your own life.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 7v10-16

The historical situation – Rezin of Aram and Pekah of northern Israel are provoking Ahaz of Judah to join them in an alliance against the Assyrian campaign of 734-732BC. God’s promise is that He will dispose of these trouble makers and He offers a sign of his good intentions. Traditionally attention has focused on a virgin giving birth but the Hebrew speaks generally of a ‘young woman.’ Several prophets speak of children being born and bearing a name of prophetic significance. So here the ‘sign’ is the name of a child soon to be born – Immanuel – which means ‘God is with us.’ God promises to be with his people to rescue them and care for them. Matthew applies the prophecy to Jesus. Three times Matthew recalls the theme, ‘God is with us,’ – at the beginning when Jesus is born, half-way through the gospel ‘when two or three are gathered together in my name,’ and finally ‘I am with you always to the end of the age.’ The Risen Jesus is always close alongside us to guide us or help us whenever we call on his name.

Christmas Day: Isaiah 9v2-7

Here is another promise of the Ideal King who will rule in righteousness and establish peace. Isaiah 35 uses the metaphor of a desert rejoicing and blossoming. Here we have the dramatic transformation from darkness to light – words that recall God’s first mighty act of creation, ‘Let there be light,’ when ‘darkness was over the surface of the deep.’ When God acts he acts with the power of the Creator as when he triumphed over the Midianites with a great storm (Judges 4 and 5). But, as Creator, he also works with the sensitivity and tenderness of the One who created the seed and the baby. Justice and peace and harmony can only be established as we learn how to take responsibility for our world and our society. We have to learn how to fulfil our own life and also how to live with one another for the sake of the common good. God gives us time to prepare for the Day of Glory. Here and now we need ‘Light’ day by day to understand God’s purposes, to be able to ‘see the way,’ to be able to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

The First Sunday of Christmas: Isaiah 63v7-9

These three verses form a general thanksgiving for all God’s goodness in the past, in faith expecting such goodness to continue in the present and into the future. Paul commands us, ‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’ (1 Thess. 5.18). At the heart of our worship there is always thanksgiving. The prayer at the heart of our Communion service is called the Eucharistic Prayer, so named because eucharist is the Greek word for thanksgiving. When we make the effort to recall what God has done in the past we open our hearts and minds to the grace which He made available on those occasions. Thus we open a door for God to continue to work in us through his Holy Spirit.

Spend some time alone with God –

  • Thanking him for the people in your life:
  • Thanking him for what he has done for you in the past.
  • Especially thank him for the life of Jesus:
  • For the things he taught,
  • For the people he healed,
  • For the sacrifice of himself he made out of love for you,
  • For his resurrection heralding the hope of new life yet to come.

November

Introduction

The musical Riverdance is the celebration of the irrepressible human spirit that in times of darkness presses forward to the hope of a better day. The historical setting is the period in the 19th century when famine swept Ireland and vast numbers of people migrated to America to build up a new life out of the fragments of the devastation that had overtaken them.

All of the Old Testament readings for November speak of the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people arising in times of darkness and suffering. The ‘irrepressible’ human spirit is attributed to empowering by God.

4 before Advent: Daniel 7v1-3, 15-18

The Book of Daniel is addressed to the Jews of the 160s BC when the City of Jerusalem was overrun by the Greeks and Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrated the Temple. It was a time of anger and despair for the small weak community. The writer refers back some 400 years to the times of the Jewish exile in Babylonia. He tells the stories of a certain Daniel who took Jeremiah’s advice and settled down in captivity. He was promoted to a position of honour in the Persian Court when Cyrus conquered the Babylonians. Daniel served his masters but courageously continued to make public confession of his faith in the Lord God. The Lord granted him dreams assuring him of glory times yet to come. The writer tells these stories of Daniel as an encouragement to the current community of Jews suffering under the Greek oppression.

Dreams and hopes and fortitude are means by which God sustains the faith of his people when all around is hostile.

Remembrance Sunday: Micah 4v1-5

This prophecy, the first three verses of which are identical to Isaiah 2. 2-4, could have been proclaimed originally by either Isaiah or Micah during a period of some 50 years when Assyria was troubling Israel. Israel was a small and weak nation trapped between the powerful nations of Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. Israel might hold her ground for a while as David and Solomon managed but she could never have launched an offensive to overpower these great empires. Yet she dreamed of messages of righteousness and peace streaming out from Jerusalem to conquer the evil and violence of the world. The hope is for the restoration of the Paradise of Eden upon earth.

The New Testament recognises that this may not happen in our own lifetime. A scenario of death and bodily resurrection is absorbed into these prophecies. The hope is never one of a purely spiritual paradise. The hope is of the Heavenly Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, to be established upon earth. Our Bishop’s ‘Kingdom People’ project is directed towards social and political action to overcome the dark areas of life on this planet with the Light of the Gospel and to establish heaven upon earth as our Saviour asked us to pray for. The promise is that solid works of faith and hope and love will shine as jewels embedded in the walls of this new world. “Faith, hope, and love abide.” (1 Cor.13, 13.)

2 before Advent: Malachi 4v1-2a    

When God came to the rescue of the Israelites at the Red Sea; and when He came in answer to Deborah’s prayers to save them from the Canaanites (Judges 4 and 5); and when He came in answer to the prayers of Samuel to save them from the Philistines (1 Samuel 7), He came in the form of a Storm God. The wind and rain that provided a way of escape for the Israelites proved to be a hazard to the chariot wheels of the enemy.

Malachi picks up on a later biblical image for God – that of a Storm of Fire. The analogy is that of fire that heats a crucible to melt silver or gold so as to burn off the impurities but at the same time preserves the pure and precious metal. We encounter the fire again in the blazing furnace of Daniel 3 where Daniel’s 3 companions are brought safely through. And we encounter fire again in the New Testament – “Fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3. 13.)

Malachi holds out the hope that the ‘fire’ that burns up the stubble is at the same time, for the faithful, a ‘sun of righteousness’ that brings healing.

Christ the King: Jeremiah 23v1-6

During the centuries of the kings of Israel the ideal was that the king should reign in righteousness, maintaining justice for his people, securing peace, provide economic prosperity and care for the poor and weak. He was to be a true shepherd to his people. But the ideal was never realised, and from the time of the Babylonian exile onwards the monarchy was never restored. Israel was always subject to some greater national power.

Jeremiah prophesies of a time in the future when a righteous descendant of David will be raised up. This prophecy gives rise to further hopes of a ‘Coming One,’ a ‘Messiah,’ who will fulfil God’s purposes for humankind.

Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth came as the fulfilment of both this prophecy and the prophecy of Isaiah 53. The Promised One is both Triumphant King and Suffering Servant – the True Shepherd. He is an invisible, yet life-giving Presence among us. He promised:-

“If two or three of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18. 19, 20.)

A final thought

We have seen a variety of expressions of how the people of faith continued to preserve faith and give birth to hope during times of adversity.

The promotional article that I read about Riverdance describes this hope as the ‘irrepressible human spirit.’ But where does such a spirit come from? We might recognise a purely natural spirit that seeks to survive for one’s own sake. The interesting issue arises when the irrepressible spirit contains an altruistic dimension exercising a concern for the whole group. I see this as evidence for a loving, righteous and purposeful God at the root of all things.

October

Trinity 16: Lamentations 1v1-6

When things go wrong, sometimes we just crumple and cry; sometimes we have a day of gloom and grumpiness; sometimes we get very angry. Often music is a powerful way of expressing and absorbing our deep-felt emotions. On the 6th June of this year a lone piper stood on the Normandy beaches and gathered up a multitude of emotions as he played a lament, taking people back 75 years to the D-day landings. The lone piper lament on the walls of Edinburgh Castle at the annual military Tattoo is also a particularly haunting experience. 

The Bible has a rich treasury of laments written in words. Who can fail to be touched by David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1? “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother.”

 Because these laments (many of them among the psalms) are written in poetry they speak to the soreness in our own hearts.

 Today’s lament is written by Jeremiah or one of his contemporaries who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC and the subsequent exile of her peoples. Jerusalem is likened to a widow. The physicality of wet tears on the soft skin of the cheek well expresses the power of Hebrew poetry. We feel her loneliness and desperation, the disappearance of all fun and joy. But then, at last, the writer gets to the worst piece of news that he has been holding back till now –

“her children have gone away, captives before the foe.”  …..

Silence.

Trinity 17: Jeremiah 29v1, 4-7

Jerusalem has been destroyed. The peoples have been taken into captivity. They have been made slaves of a foreign empire. If Lamentations expresses their sorrow, Psalm 137 expresses their anger and Psalm 88 expresses their despair.

It could easily have come about that within a generation or two the Israelites could simply have disappeared from history. But Jeremiah rallies them. In this darkness Jeremiah establishes the foundations of a new future: settle down in exile, get your sons and daughters married, work, pray for the welfare of the community where you find yourself. The priests, in particular, must have heard this message because somehow they managed to preserve for posterity the library of sacred Hebrew documents that had been building up since the times of David and Solomon. It would appear, indeed, that this must have been a feverishly busy time for the gathering and copying and editing of these sacred documents. When they did eventually return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple and the City they were well provided with a set of documents that formed the foundation of their new national life. They no longer had a king on earth, but they did have a Majesty on High.

Trinity 18: Jeremiah 31v27-34

The passage refers back to Jeremiah’s calling (Jer. 1.10). Having destroyed and exiled, the Lord will now set about ‘multiplying’ his people, building them up, and refraining from ‘visiting the sins of the fathers onto the subsequent generations.’ In particular, the written law will be replaced with God’s law written on their hearts. This does not actually come about within the post-exilic community which tended to emphasise the external demands of the law such as the Sabbath which we see strictly practised among the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.

Both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah speak of a circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 9.25; Deut. 30.6). Following Jeremiah, Ezekiel will speak of a change of heart – “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” All of this will be developed in the New Testament with an enriched understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit and of the relationship between God and humankind. These ideas, along with the prophecy of Joel 2.28– “Then afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” remained unfulfilled until the heavens opened upon Jesus at his baptism by John and a new covenant was established between God and humankind through the Blood of Jesus.

Last Sunday after Trinity: Joel 2v23-end

The prophecy of Joel is undated. It could have been written at any time between that of Amos and that of Daniel. The focus on the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Spirit suggest a later rather than earlier date. Was the plague of locusts a metaphorical description of the devastation of the exile? Possibly. But most commentators read it as a historically true event.  It is however written in Hebrew poetry which naturally lends itself to exaggerated expression in order to give a heightened effect. This leads on to the idea that the current crisis is a foretaste of a greater crisis, the Day of the Lord – that is yet to come. Today’s reading speaks of the blessings that that era will introduce, revealing the overwhelming goodness, kindness and mercy of the Lord. The passage is taken up by St Luke to explain the remarkable faith and power and witness of the early Christian community shown through signs and wonders.

Israel recognised that some of their community had demonstrated remarkable spiritual leadership because they had either ‘spoken with God’ or been ‘filled with the Spirit.’ For instance, Moses, Gideon, Samson, Saul, David, Elijah and the prophets.  Joel’s prophecy is foundational to the Christian Gospel that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be filled with the Holy Spirit – men and women, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles. The Spirit may reveal Himself through ‘wisdom, counsel, prayer …’ (Isaiah 11.2), through spiritual gifts, ‘tongues, miracles, prophecy …’ (1 Cor. 12.8-10), or a dedicated style of life (Gal.5.22,23), to quote but three aspects. There is something very good for everyone. Just as God’s original creation was very good (Genesis 1.31) so His re-creation through the resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit is something very good. God is not miserly; He is very generous and accommodates Himself to our needs.

September

The lectionary for September provides an Old Testament Reading from Jeremiah for each Sunday. In local practice there will be one or two Sunday celebrations that disrupt the continuous flow of readings. However, in view of the great importance attached to Jeremiah and the complexity of his message I have devoted all five Sunday commentaries to him.

Trinity 11: Jeremiah 2v4-13

Just over 200 years ago Elijah had staged a showdown with the people on Mount Carmel over their worship of Baal. Spectacular as the demonstration was, we discover in Jeremiah just how little impact it made in the long run and how endemic the pagan religion founded on Baal has become. The priests, the Levites, the political rulers and the prophets are all following the pagan practices of the land of Canaan.

Jeremiah reminds the people of their ancestors’ honeymoon period when they eagerly followed the LORD. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt; He led them through the hostile wilderness; He settled them in The Chosen Land. Jeremiah asks why anyone would ever want to turn away from such a benefactor – search the world from the Kittites on the far western isles to the Arab tribes on the far east and such apostasy has never been heard of. Like a well of water the LORD was their source of life, but they chose instead idols who are but a passing breath.

Consider – what idols do we chase – power, money, sex; popularity, fame, wealth, leisure; drugs, drink and other addictions? Pray for the Lord Jesus to deliver you from your vain fantasies.

Trinity 12: Jeremiah 18v1-11

Jeremiah is encouraged by the LORD to learn lessons from the observation of life – here, the work of the potter.

Jeremiah’s ministry spans a period of at least 40 years – times of tumultuous changes for the kingdom of Judah. There were times of domination by other nations; opportunities for freedom when that power waned. There were times of religious apathy; there were times of radical religious reformation. There were rumours of armies rising up in distant countries; there were opportunities to seek protection with neighbouring countries. But whom could you trust!?

In the potter’s house Jeremiah would recall how the LORD created Adam out of the dust of the earth. As the potter adapts his plans in response to how the work is going, so the LORD

can adapt his methods to suit the varying needs and conditions of his people. The message is fundamentally one of comfort and reassurance – the LORD’s ability to bring His people through changing and challenging times, provided they listen to His word.

There was a period of hope during Josiah’s reform of religion (2Kings. 22 and 23) but it was short-lived. Josiah is killed in battle and things go from bad to worse. In the following chapter 19 Jeremiah delivers a more severe and frustrating message when he smashes an earthenware flask in the valley of Ben-Hinnom.

Ponder – why do things so often have to get worse before they can begin to get better?

Trinity 13: Jeremiah 4v11-12, 22-28

Verses 23-26 record a vision of doom granted to Jeremiah.

Each of the four verses begins, “I looked, and lo …” and indicates a distinct unit of 4 verses in its own right.

Words like, “waste, void, light, birds, fruitful land,” recall Genesis 1, the account of God’s creation of the world. This is a frightening vision of God’s ability to undo that work and take it apart piece by piece. It is a sharp and stark reminder of our need to rely on God alone (cf Psalm 62) and not on anything that He has made.

Spend time in meditation on this vision.

The Book of Jeremiah is an anthology of speeches, visions, poems, autobiography, and historical events with minimal indication of how they all relate to each other.

Vv 11 and 12 also speak of a frightening prospect – the ‘hot wind’ (the sirocco from the desert) that, in contrast to Isaiah, will not leave a remnant.

V 22 gives a reason for God’s judgements – God’s people are ‘foolish,’ ‘having no understanding.’

Vv 27-28. Despite all the terrible things that happen Jeremiah, along with all the other prophets, knows that the LORD is the LORD revealed by Moses “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exodus 34.6). (Cf Joel 2.13)

Trinity 14: Jeremiah 8v18-9v1

Jeremiah foresees that the kingdom of Judah will surely be conquered and deported. There can be no reckoning with the power of the armies of Baylonia. In this passage Jeremiah has a vision of the future exiles, languishing in Babylon and wondering where the LORD has gone. The Temple of Jerusalem,

the place of the Presence of the LORD, has been destroyed; time has passed, and there is no sign of any rescue for God’s people. Jeremiah’s agonised heart speaks the compassion of the LORD. Isaiah 49.15  speaks perhaps both for Hosea and Jeremiah,

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.”

(Again the prophet draws lessons from life, but with the added ‘How much more so’ when it is of God.)

The LORD may be angry and disappointed with the human He has made but they are the crown of His creation and, surely, He can never give up on them?

Consider – who are the ‘forgotten’ people in our own society for whom we should be caring?

Trinity 15: Jeremiah 32v1-3a, 6-15

Babylonia had swept through the country of Judah and was now besieging the city of Jerusalem, threatening deportation of the population. A kinsman offers Jeremiah the opportunity to purchase a field in Judah which is his by right as next-of-kin. Politically there is no chance that Jeremiah will ever be free to claim the piece of land. However Jeremiah makes the purchase as an expression of his belief that one day Babylon itself will be conquered and the Jews will be free to reclaim their land.

In 2010 Jose Henriquez strengthened the morale of 32 other miners as he led daily prayers for their rescue in the Chilean mine disaster. 69 days of waiting they endured. You can find details on the internet

Do you have any experience of people who have encouraged others to hold out or keep on going against all the odds? These would be good stories to share with one another.

August

Dates of Kings and Prophets

922 BC

Death of Solomon

The Kingdom divides

Southern kingdom.                                 Northern kingdom.

          (Judah)                                        (Israel, Ephraim, Jacob)

Elijah

Elisha

Amos

Hosea

          742 BC

     Call of Isaiah

                                                                        722 BC

                                                              Kingdom overrun by

                                                                        Assyria.

          687/6 BC

   Death of Hezekiah

           627 BC

First prophecy of Jeremiah

          586 BC

Conquest of Jerusalem

and exile to Babylon.

TimeLine for Jeremiah

668 –            Asshurbanapal is King of Assyria;

      627         a reign of conquest followed by works of peace.

                     (His library preserved some of the ancient creation

                     Myths of Babylonia.)

640 –            Josiah, aged 8 years, becomes King of Judah.

     609

Assyrian power begins to wane as a result of conflicts with enemies on all sides

633/2           2 Chron. 34.3-8

                     Repudiation of Assyrian cult. (John Bright)

627               Death of Asshurbanapal

                     First prophecy of Jeremiah

629/8           Sin-shar-ishkun accedes to throne of Assyria.

                     Radical purge of idolatrous practices. (JB)

622               2 Kings 22.3         

                     Book of the Law found

                               In the course of Temple repairs

                     Josiah leads reform of national religion

???               The great Passover celebration

Reign of Josiah –

2 Kings 22.3 – 2 Kings 23.25.

2 Chron. 34 and 35

Account of the reform.

612               Fall of Nineveh

                     Capital of Assyria

Trinity 7: Hosea 11v1-11

Ephraim was the second son of Joseph but received the firstborn’s blessing from his grandfather Jacob (renamed Israel). The northern kingdom may be referred to by any of these three names. Hosea imagines the LORD rediscovering the descendants of Joseph, His long lost child, after some 500 years abandoned in Egypt. The LORD’s compassion reaches out to the lad, rescuing him from Egypt, leading him through the wilderness and building him up for adult life in the promised land. But the lad does not recognize where his blessings have come from. In the waywardness of youth Ephraim turns to anything close to hand that looks exciting – worship of the agricultural god Baal, the military prowess of both Egypt and Assyria. The LORD considers that His justice should require that He destroy the kingdom of Israel as He did Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (Admah and Zeboiim were cities in the vicinity). But His compassion overrules His justice – in a world of vengeance a remarkable revelation of the ‘heart’ of the LORD. In the end the LORD will win the free and loving allegiance of those whom He calls i.e ‘when He roars’ (v10) – presumably a fatherly, protective, reassuring roar!

Trinity 8: Isaiah 1v1,10-20

Judah, the southern kingdom, appears to have been overrun by a marauding army which has left the land in ruins. The people are desperately clinging to whatever is left that is familiar and comforting – various rituals and observances of their religion. But they are misreading the situation; they are failing to understand the reasons for their defeat. Isaiah spells it out: they are only paying lip-service to their religion, they are not living it out in daily life. They have failed to exercise justice – they have neglected the oppressed and the orphan and the widow. The Lord requires worship that is offered with a whole heart – repentance and a desire to live a new way of life. The Lord’s forgiveness with the promise of better times is offered provided the people turn to the Lord.

Trinity 9: Isaiah 5v1-7

Isaiah portrays the LORD as the manager of a vineyard, the vineyard being the people of Israel. The manager exercises meticulous care in carrying out all that should be necessary for the vineyard to become productive. The LORD’s purpose as we learn from Abraham in Genesis 12 is to create a people who will bring a blessing to all humankind. Isaiah tells us that the manager of the vineyard hoped for grapes, but all he got was rotten fruit. In other words – Israel has produced only injustice and unrighteousness. However the LORD is never defeated by the waywardness of his people. Later prophecies will tell of a ‘remnant’ being left and of the LORD doing a ‘new thing.’ It is an amazing fact how this hope carried the people of God through so many centuries and through so much darkness and uncertainty.

Trinity 10: Jeremiah 1v4-10

The thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah would be 626 BC. Jeremiah has that sense of being called by the LORD from before his birth. When he awakens to this realisation he feels weak, unworthy and inadequate. There is a strong sense of personal communion between Jeremiah and the LORD. Jeremiah is able to express himself freely to the LORD, and in return receives great personal reassurance and encouragement. The LORD ‘puts My words into your mouth,’ implying that as Jeremiah speaks the word has power to bring into effect that which it proclaims. (As at creation – God said, and so it came to be.) Prophets therefore were set apart and held in awe even if their words were unpopular – they were not readily put to death by kings. Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy concerns the personal struggle he has with the LORD and with the people concerning some very unpopular messages he is called to proclaim. Here is a man upheld by a strong personal faith in the LORD as he battles against the streams of unfaith, of idolatry and of the popular opinions of his own times.

July

Trinity 3: 2 Kings 5v1-14

We heard last week how Elisha witnessed his Master, Elijah, being taken up to heaven and how the company of prophets bore witness, “The spirit of Elijah is resting upon Elisha.” Elisha continued to bear witness to the Lord God of the Moses tradition through miracles after the fashion of Elijah. A number of special features may be noted in the account of the healing of Naaman:-

The faith of the young servant girl as she speaks up to Naaman’s wife – “the prophet in Israel would cure him”: Elisha’s openness to non-Israelites – he does not confine his ministry to his own kind or to his own circle of friends: simplicity of the ministry offered – “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan”: the barrier of Naaman’s sense of self-importance – like Adam we are all ‘dust of the earth’ before the face of God. Finally Naaman listens to the suggestions of his servants, humbles himself and does what Elisha asks.

These stories of Elijah and Elisha present a whole catalogue of  healings and ‘Kingdom values’ that will also mark the ministry of Jesus. The Lord God of the Old Testament is, indeed, the same God as the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus’ time, when people speculated that John the Baptist or Jesus might be heralding the return of the expected Elijah, they were raising hopes for a time when God might loom large in the land again both at the political level and the personal level.

Trinity 4: Amos 7v7-end

Amos is the first of the prophets to have left a written record of his words. He was ‘one of the people’, a shepherd from Tekoa in Judah and he addressed his words to non-Israelite kingdoms as well as the kingdom of Israel. The message from the Lord God of Jerusalem is to all peoples. (Cf psalm 50 – ‘the Lord speaks and summons the earth’.) Right back from the time of Abraham, God chose his people so that he might use them to bring a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12.3). Amos, then, is a ‘layman with a 9 to 5 job’ who hears God calling him to proclaim a message.

The opening chapter names atrocities we might consider to be ‘crimes against humanity’ – “threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth;”  “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead;” … The plumb-line (7.8) measures the way of life of the Israelites against God’s standards of justice and righteousness. From the beginning the Lord God is a God of righteousness (Genesis 4.7, “If you do what is right will you not be accepted?”) (Psalm 72 gives a concise description of the righteousness expected of God’s King – or, indeed, of any political leader: justice in the courts, economic prosperity, secure defence assuring peace, care for the poor and needy.) Amos is the one who expands on what the word righteousness might mean. In 7.9 Amos warns against religious observances that are carried out while justice and righteousness are denied in daily life. Amos is above all else the prophet of social righteousness and deserves a close reading.

Trinity 5: Amos 8v1-12

This is the fourth vision that Amos has spurring him to proclaim a message. There is a pun on the Hebrew word for ‘ripe’ with the Hebrew word for ‘end’ giving rise to a proclamation of judgment at the coming ‘day of the Lord,’ – ‘you are ripe for the end-time.’ Israel has grown and flourished but has excelled in the wrong things.

Crimes against social righteousness are listed, especially traders and merchants abusing the poor, cheating with the scales and measures and prices, impatient with holidays and religious observances until they can get on and line their pockets with ill-gotten gains.

Amos foresees the day coming (shortly after his lifetime) when Assyria will overrun Israel and conquer the land, causing famine and denial of water sources. But Amos tells that the greater disaster will be denial of any ‘word of the Lord’ because of the faithlessness of the people.

Ashima is the name of a Canaanite mother-goddess, a local god believed to bring prosperity and well-being to the local inhabitants. Many of the Israelites felt drawn to turn to these local gods, turning away from ‘Yahweh’ who had led their ancestors through the wilderness. Setting our hearts and minds on the wrong ‘gods’ affects the moral standards that we profess to follow.

Trinity 6: Hosea 1v2-10

Hosea is a prophet from the northern kingdom. His ministry follows on closely after that of Amos.

Hosea married a prostitute? The idea is so bizarre that it probably has to be true!

Some of the prophets were renowned for ‘acting out’ their message rather than making fine speeches. In this case Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute is an acted-out symbol of Israel turning away from the Lord, Yahweh, to embracing and worshipping the local gods of Canaan. The teaching of Moses was that the Lord Yahweh had entered into a covenant with Israel. A covenant is a two-way contract as in marriage. So the Moses covenant is that God promises blessings and well-being for Israel who, in return, put the Lord Yahweh above all others and follow his ways. Breaking that covenant is seen by Hosea as a-whoring after other gods. Such unfaithfulness inevitably leads to pained feelings, angry feelings and disaster. When all seems lost and finished the remarkable thing about the prophets (and, indeed, most of the Old Testament) is that at the bottom of the darkest pit a light shines that opens up the hope of a bright new future (1.10).

Whereas Amos measures Israel against the plumb-line of God’s standards of justice and righteousness, Hosea measures Israel against the finest feelings of the human heart.

In Hosea we have a fine, memorable, poetic expression of the Lord God’s tender love, mercy and compassion for the people he chose, despite their fickleness.

 “How can I give you up …

My heart is changed within me;

All my compassion is aroused.” (Hosea 11.8).

June

These notes are built round one of the Old Testament lessons appointed for each Sunday of the year according to the Common Worship Lectionary (2000) for the Church of England. If you do not have a Bible to hand the passages can easily be found at www.biblegateway.com. My comment is based on the text of the New Revised Standard Version Anglicised (NRSVA) which is the version we use in Church at St George’s, Barbourne, Worcester, UK. My preferred version for the psalms is that of the psalter found in Common Worship (2000). I hope and pray that you may find my comments to be helpful. But remember, the most important thing is to read the Bible passage and to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal its message for you at this particular time in your life. May it be for you as it was for the disciples, “The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you,” (Mark 4.11.)

Trinity Sunday: Proverbs 8v1-4, 22-31

Lady Wisdom

Wisdom is presented as a Lady, the personification of all the powers and principles and qualities that God will use to create, sustain and guide his creation. She is created, so she is not a part of God. But then neither is she angel. She may be thought of as the principles of ‘order’ and of ‘cause and effect’ that control the material world; in the human sphere as the principles of love and touch and trust and all the other qualities that make for a fulfilled community life.

‘Wisdom calls out  …  to all mankind.’

Careful observation of life is able to teach us many good things. See for example the farmer learning the ways of nature in Isaiah 28.23-29. But we often misread the signs and receive the wrong message. So both Isaiah, in the Old Testament, and Paul, in the New Testament, teach us that we must seek the Spirit in order to be able to read and hear the message of wisdom aright:

“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –

The Spirit of wisdom and understanding …” (Isaiah 11.2-3)

“I keep asking that God … may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation …” (Ephesians 1.17.)

Proverbs 8.30. tells how God has built into his creation a sense of childlike joy and delight that permeates all things and fulfils the human life. This might be “foolishness to the Greeks” but God’s wisdom is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor. 1.18-25).

Proverbs 9.10. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Trinity 1: The Prophets of Israel

In Old Testament times kings were generally reckoned to be the source of wisdom, “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just.” (Proverbs 8.15)

But even David and Solomon got things wrong. So, in Israel, God raised up prophets. These prophets were marked out by inspiration of the Spirit of God, sometimes leading to bizarre and unusual behaviour, sometimes leading to written poetry of a high literary quality. Always there was discernment for God’s purpose in some current situation. A major concern was that of the god, Baal.

The god Baal

Baal was the name of a god widely worshipped in Canaan before the twelve tribes moved in. He was believed in, by the Canaanites, as one whose blessing was specially needed for the crops to thrive in an agricultural economy. Under Moses, the wandering tribes had thought of the Lord God as a wilderness and desert God, providing water from the rocks and manna in the morning. As they moved into Canaan they were tempted to seek the blessing of Baal for their new way life in a new land.

1 Kings 19v1-15

1 Kings 16 tells how Ahab became king and married Jezebel. Both began to serve Baal, the god of the land of Canaan, setting up a temple in Samaria. Thus came about the conflict with Elijah who was spokesman for the God revealed by Moses in the wilderness and through the Sinai Commandments. Elijah manifests prophecy mainly through signs and miracles,

especially life-giving miracles that demonstrate the Lord God’s ability to provide for his people in a new and strange land.

1 Kings 19 records the personal strain imposed on Elijah in fulfilling his calling to serve the Lord God and how God met him, affirmed him, encouraged him, and went with him as he continued the life of faith.

Trinity 2: 2 Kings 2v1-2, 6-14

Elijah had followers who continued the Moses tradition of living in wilderness conditions. So far as we know they left no written records but handed on their faith by oral tradition – they would

have memorised such things as the Ten Commandments and the record of the Exodus from Egypt.

Enoch, Moses and Elijah are three whose disappearance from earth is recorded but without any record of a death and burial. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Peter, James and John witness him conversing with Moses and Elijah. Generally speaking in the Old Testament the only life after death is a gloomy existence in the underworld (Sheol), completely shut off from God. But here and there, like the ascent of Elijah, there are hints that there might be something more. That ‘something more’ is to be found in the New Testament.