The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3

These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom.  The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained.  It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple.  Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased.  But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.  By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them.  Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God.  As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,

Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)

The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him.  This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom.  While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do  is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”.  And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.

Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world.    Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet.  And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.

The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right.    Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.

 

The Bible in a a Year – 2 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

2 June. Ezekiel chapter 12

Chapter 12 contains the second of the acted parables, this time with Ezekiel packing his bags and making as if to leave the city through hole in the wall, as a sign that the walls of Jerusalem were about to be broken down and its remaining inhabitants taken into exile.  He was also told to explain to the people that God’s judgement would be delayed no longer and that his prophecies were about imminent events, not the far future.

 

It is a human tendency to ignore bad news, to put off dealing with difficult challenges, and to hope that something will turn up to prevent the worst from happening  We see that in a big way in our day with climate change: although the vast majority of people accept the need to do something about it, both ordinary people and politicians are slow to make commitments to reduce emissions and pollution, and even when countries do set targets, typically to reach a lower level of emissions within (say)  10 or 30 years, they generally do nothing until the last couple of years, then apologise that there was not enough time to meet the commitment, and postpone the target date.  But the change is here, and the time for action is now!

 

The Bible in a Year – 1 March (Ash Wednesday)

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

1 March. Deuteronomy chapters 5-7

It may be no coincidence that the Bible reading plan I am following includes Deuteronomy 5 today, for it is a reprise (in slightly different words) of the Ten Commandments. Today is Ash Wednesday when Christians particularly focus on confessing sins in order that we may make a new start with God and make new resolutions to be more holy, whether that is by giving up something that takes us away from God, or doing more of something that brings us closer to him such as prayer, volunteering in the community or charitable giving.

 

Note what Moses says to the people – “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (5:3). These commandments are for all people at all time, universal rules for living in harmony with our creator and the creation. Whereas the more detailed rules and regulations already given through the books of Leviticus and Numbers were, as Moses says in chapter 6, for this specific nation at the time they were settling that particular country, so not all of them will be applicable to us today.

 

Chapter 7 stresses again the importance of keeping the commandments. Why?  “God maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays in their own person those who reject him.” (7:9-10)  The results of sin can be seen in someone’s own life very quickly, but the fruits of good works may not be evident until future generations.  That’s a lesson within families as intended – a bad parent creates a dysfunctional family easily, but good parenting only really shows itself as one generation succeeds another.  But it’s also true when it comes to something like tackling climate change (something that many Christian charities now ask us to think about in Lent as well) – cutting my energy use now will not make much difference to me in my lifetime, but it’s a small contribution to preventing changes that will massively impact billions of people in the future.

The Bible in a Year – 20/21 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20/21 January. Exodus chapters 7-12

These chapters cover the plagues of Egypt, in which God, through the prophesies spoken by Aaron and the symbolic actions of Moses, brought one disaster after another on the Egyptians, initially sparing the political leaders but increasingly affecting them too. But each time Pharaoh either refused the request to let the Hebrews go, or else reneged on his promise.  Only the last and most dreadful plague – the death of every firstborn child and animal – persuaded Pharaoh to agree to the ‘repatriation’ request.  This has echoes for me of two contemporary situations:

 

Firstly, the increase of negative attitudes or even hostility towards immigrants in Britain, especially since the Brexit vote.  Not only illegal immigrants, but those who have come legally from within or without the EU to work, and those born here of foreign parents, find themselves the subject of hate, discrimination or even violence.  That of course is incompatible with a Christian understanding of equality and love of neighbour.  But what strikes me is the contrast between those in the UK who want immigrants to “go home” even when they are working and living peacefully here, and pharaoh who refused to let an increasingly troublesome immigrant group leave the country when they wanted to! It seems that actually he valued and needed their labour to keep the economy going. Presumably they were doing the jobs that Egyptians would not do – making bricks, rearing sheep and goats, and probably many other back-breaking or dirty jobs.  And they were indispensable (though underpaid). Whereas the immigrants who do such jobs in our country – also often underpaid and living in poor conditions and sometimes even as slaves – are regarded with scorn. If they do leave (willingly or otherwise) who will do their jobs? And whose side will God be on?

 

The other aspect of the story is Pharaoh who saw the plagues and knew that the Hebrews (or their god) were causing them, and yet refused to acknowledge the damage the plagues were causing to his people – water pollution, infestations, disease, extreme weather, crop failure and increased mortality – until they hit his own family directly.  This week the new president of the USA is a known ‘climate change denier’ who has appointed another such man to head the Environment Protection Agency. What will it take for these people to acknowledge the impact that mankind’s activities are having on our fellow humans and the wider environment?  Will it take the death of their own children?  I hope not. But change they must.