The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 February

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

25 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 8-10

All that I wrote yesterday about warfare in the Bible lands still applies.  Judas and Demetrius senior die in battle in this period, as does the Syrian general Nicanor. But the struggle for religious and political control of Judea continues into the next generation.  With references to Alexander and Cleopatra (though these are neither Alexander the Great nor the Cleopatra of Shakespearean fame) we are reminded of the great influence of Greece and Egypt in this period.  The battles of these centuries before the Christian era were as much about the clash between faith in God and the Greek emphasis on human reason, as they were about political control and military might.

Chapter 8 also brings the Romans into the story, although they don’t seem to appear elsewhere: Rome at this time dominated Western Europe but Greece the East.  The treaty between Rome (a large empire) and Judea (a tiny country) seems very unequal, but might be compared to the NATO pact – dominated by the USA, if they withdrew from NATO it would become far weaker as a defensive alliance, but the principle of each member promising to support the others in time of war was the same.   The treaty also forbade either side from supporting the enemy of the other with money or weapons, again just as NATO does, which is why today’s war in Syria puts a strain on NATO as different members of that alliance seem to be arming different players in that conflict, and as Britain continues to arm Saudi Arabia in its repression of Yemen at the same time that other NATO countries call for an end to that brutal conflict.    History truly does repeat itself.

So where is the spiritual element among all this politics and war?  It is hard to see, but is in the background. Jonathan in particular sees himself as a successor to King David and other Jewish leaders of the past, defending not just a people but a religion against the threat of extermination.   David had been a rebel leader, later becoming king (and therefore a military commander) but also involved in Temple worship, famously composing many  Psalms. That explains what might seem to modern eyes a rather contradictory verse, “Jonathan put on the sacred vestments [i.e. became High Priest] in the seventh month of the year one hundred and sixty, on the feast of Tabernacles; he then set about raising troops and manufacturing arms in quantity” (10:21).  In those turbulent times, prayer and fighting were both necessary to save the life and faith of the Jewish people.  There are places in  the world today where it would be difficult to criticise a similar strategy.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 February

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

24 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 5-7

Violence follows violence in this story, as the Holy Land is the scene of fighting between several groups: the Greek king’s forces under Lysias, Judas and his resistance army, the Hasmoneans (religious conservatives) , those Jews who had preferred peaceful collaboration with the Greeks to armed resistance, the army of Demetrius of Rome, and Alcimus the  pretender to the high priesthood.  I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the politics or military engagements of this period, but it does sound horribly like the situation in Syria today, where the tyrannical ruler backed by some foreign powers continues to oppress his own people, resisted by an unholy mixture of home-grown resistance forces, Islamist terrorists, and the influence of outside players such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

We can see in our news the effects of this bloody and interminable conflict on civilians, millions of whom have either been killed or become internally displaced or refuges in other countries. Although there was perhaps not such a stark military/civilian distinction in Biblical times, I expect that a large proportion of the non-combatant population suffered in a similar way.  Certainly those living in besieged towns, without a say over who actually was in charge of them, faced being murdered (if male) raped (if female) or abducted as slaves (if young). That is, if they did not die of starvation, which seemed to have been a real threat as it was the “seventh year” (6:53 -the fallow year when the Jews were supposed to live off the stores of food from previous years).

One verse stand out for me in all this horror.  In the battle for Hebron we are told that “among the fallen were some priests who sought to prove their courage by joining in the battle, a foolhardy venture” (5:67).  It seems that priests, then as now, were exempt from military service, and even in violent times their role as men of peace was valued and should not be compromised.  The role of a priest, rabbi or similar representative of faith groups in an army is not to fight, but to pray and to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the armed forces.  Warfare tends to strip people of their natural human compassion, as “the other” becomes “the enemy”; it is the chaplain’s difficult role to try and restore their humanity.

Most of us in Britain, fortunately, will never have to engage in battle.  But we can pray for our armed forces on duty overseas, and for their chaplains of all faiths, that humanity may prevail.  We can also pray for places like Syria that when the fighting eventually ceases, humanity and civilisation, in the name of the merciful God of all, may take the place of hatred and violence.  It will take a long time – the Maccabean wars lasted for decades, and the Syrian war and its aftermath may last just as long.  But remember, with God a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 February

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

22 February. Judith chapters 14-16

These final chapters following the murder of Holofernes recount how the Jews took their revenge on the Assyrians, and then celebrated their victory.  It is notable that Judith, clever strategist that she was, warned her own soldiers against engaging the enemy in combat, as she judged correctly that the panic ensuing from discovering their commander’s headless body would be enough to send them running.  So without any fighting, the Assyrians were defeated.

The victory song attributed to Judith, like several others in the Old Testament, combines celebration of human achievement with praise for God’s power and protection.  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that both faith in God, and willingness to take risks in his service, are needed to achieve great things.   If the Jews had trusted in conventional military power they would have been overwhelmed by the Assyrians.  If they had merely prayed to God in their distress at being besieged, but done nothing, would he have saved them by a miracle?   But the combination of the people’s faith in God, their willingness to listen to a woman with gifts of prophecy and leadership, and her boldness and cunning, was enough for the victory to be achieved.

As I wrote at the start, Judith is almost certainly a fictional character.   But her story can still inspire us to faith and action.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 February

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

19 February. Judith chapters 5-7

In these chapters we see different approaches to warfare.  Holofernes the Assyrian general believes in sheer weight of numbers: he trusts in his 120,000 men to overcome the Israelites in battle as he has the other subject peoples of the empire.  The Moabites however (relatively near neighbours of Israel, and their historic enemies) have a more practical suggestion which involved far fewer troops: lay siege to the hilltop towns by cutting off access to food and water.  It’s a strategy that many military commanders have used in the course of history, and Holofernes takes their advice.  By the end of chapter 7 things are looking desperate for the Israelites in Bethulia as their water has virtually run out.

There is another perspective, though: Achior, “leader of the Ammonites” (another ancient enemy of Israel) knows the history of Israel and how God has repeatedly delivered them.  He bravely tells Holofernes that not all the troops and horses in the world will help, unless God has chosen to let his people be defeated on this occasion.  Not surprisingly the pagan  Holofernes, who is willing to worship his own emperor as a god, rejects such advice.  But he gives Achior a chance by having him handed over to the Israelites, saying that he will meet his fate with them.  When he explains to the men of Bethulia what has happened, he is welcomed as an honoured guest.   Achior, then, represents the “god-fearers” who are found throughout Scripture, those who are not Jews by descent nor converts through circumcision, but who believe and trust in the one God.

These three approaches to human conflict are universal, and pretty much cover every situation: trust in human strength, or in human cunning, or in God’s will.  That’s not to say that strength and cunning never have their place, but unless they are offered as subservient to God’s will, they will not be enough on their own.

The Bible in a Year – 28 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

28 December. Revelation chapters 1-5

The book of Revelation or Apocalypse is notoriously difficult to understand, since it contains so much symbolism that people at the time of writing may have understood but which is obscure to us two thousand years later.

What is clear enough from the first three chapters is that the vision of Jesus that was given to John, was intended for the seven local church congregations listed at the start of the book.   And each of them receives a particular message from Jesus, which both (in most cases) praises and (in most cases) criticises them, before offering a promise for those who stay faithful in the face of persecution.   The praises, the criticisms, and the promises are specific to each place, because Jesus always knows that each person and each church community faces particular challenges and has particular strengths.

The praises, if we take them together, includes “deeds, hard work and perseverance” (2:2 and similarly in 2:19), “keeping my word and not denying my name” (3:8), and “remaining true to my name” (2:13 and similarly in 3:4). The emphasis here is on facing persecution, not necessarily by becoming martyrs (though some did) but by being true to the Christian worldview (or as we saw John calling it yesterday, “the truth”) even when to do so requires hard work and perseverance when the world is going in other directions.

The criticisms include “forsaking the love you had at first” (2:4), being “dead though appearing alive” (3:1) and “being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” (3:16). What those have in common is lacking the outward zeal and inner joy that characterise true Christian faith.  We cannot regain those by our own efforts but have to ask Jesus to send his Spirit on us again. Another criticism is claiming to be spiritually rich when one is spiritually poor (3:17); the opposite of that is holding onto faith in affliction and poverty, which makes one spiritually rich (2:9).   That reminds us of the Beatitudes, where those who are poor in spirit and who suffer for the sake of Jesus are declared blessed.

The promises are expressed symbolically – “eating from the tree of life” (2:7), “not being hurt by the second death” (2:11), “hidden manna and a secret name” (2:17); “authority over the nations” (2:26); “being dressed in white” (3:5), “being a pillar in the temple of God” (3:12), and “the right to sit with Jesus on his throne” (3:21).  None of these relate to our present life but all look forward to eternal life.   One of the threads running through the New Testament is the idea that our rewards for living faithfully in this life will be given us in the next.  The symbolism of chapters 4 and 5 is also about eternal life, in which all creatures in earth and heaven will worship God unceasingly.

Put all these together – the praises, criticisms and promises – and we have an encouragement to seek from Jesus the Spirit who gives us true love, life and warmth to strengthen us with joy in living the Christian life in the face of persecution, in order to attain eternal life which will be filled with praise and worship.  It is of course impossible to really know what such existence will be like, but the Revelation reminds us to look beyond the troubles of this life and stick with Jesus along the way.

The Bible in a Year – 16 December

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16 December. 2 Peter chapters 1-3 and Jude

Peter’s first letter (see 11 December) was about enduring persecution for the sake of Christ; his second letter is about holding on to the vision of faith while all around are focused on earthly pleasures.

Peter was one of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ, when God spoke to him audibly and Moses and Elijah appeared to them (1:7,8).  He had also seen the risen Jesus for himself.   He held onto those very real experiences through the dark times of persecution that followed, never doubting that Jesus would, as he promised, return to complete his salvation of the world (3:8-10).

Therefore, writes Peter, the Christian should “lead a life of holiness and godliness” (3:11), resisting temptation and being distinct from those in the world around who are caught up in the pleasures of the flesh, which lead to addiction and becoming “slaves” to their own desires.  Peter particularly singles out lust, greed and drunkenness, but in our own day he would surely have included gambling, and what we call consumerism – accumulating goods for their own sake.  The message is similar to that of Jesus who said “it is impossible to serve both God and money”.  It is far better, in Peter’s view, to be ‘slaves’ to the discipline of following Christ, than to be ‘slaves’ to one of these forms of addiction.

At this time of year approaching Christmas, many Christian speakers try and draw people away from the futile ‘pleasures’ of consumerism and drunkenness, to remind us that Jesus came to set us free from such addictions in order to have the freedom to serve him, which in fact is the way to a full and satisfying life.

Jude’s concerns in his brief letter (to an unidentified readership) are similar to those of Peter in his second letter: the purity of the Christian witness, at a time when it was threatened by people who claimed to be part of the Christian church but actually brought the faith into disrepute by sexual immorality, grumbling, accusations against others, and so on.

Both these letters, with their references to the sins of Sodom, are used along with other texts from the Bible by those within the church who consider homosexuality to be a sin against those of us who identify as “liberal Christians” who accept it. The distinction that is often lost in arguments between these two parts of the Church is that what liberal Christians consider to be acceptable is a faithful relationship between two people of the same gender, or a celibate lifestyle irrespective of orientation.  We agree with the “conservatives” in the church, and with Peter and Jude, that “Licentiousness” (defined by Webster’s dictionary as “lacking legal or moral restraints, especially sexual restraints”) as expressed in a promiscuous lifestyle, is and always will be contrary to God’s intentions, because of the damage caused to individuals where sexual behaviour is separated from love.

But to get bogged down in arguments about where the limits of acceptable sexual behaviour lie, is to risk getting caught in the “wrangling over words and stupid and senseless controversies” against which Paul warned Timothy in yesterday’s reading.  At the end of his letter Jude calls us back to the true focus of Christianity: “Jesus Christ our Lord, [to whom] be glory, majesty, power, and authority”.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 14 December

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14 December. Hebrews chapters 11-13

These last chapters of Hebrews turn from a consideration of Jesus and what he has achieved, to a list of the great figures of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) and what they achieved through faith.  Much of what is written here is not found directly in the scriptures, and is probably based on rabbinical teaching, but let’s take it as it stands.

The main thrust of the author’s argument is that having faith is not about immediate gain.  The “prosperity gospel” (“if you believe in God and pray hard enough he will make you rich”) is totally alien to this Christian doctrine.  Rather, the riches that the great heroes of the past sought were spiritual ones – the reward of finding God’s blessing in this life, or of preparing others for a life of faith.

The examples given include Abraham, who was promised a vast number of descendants through his son Isaac although he was also called by God to sacrifice Isaac, before the mission was abandoned at he last minute; also Moses, who led an entire nation to safety before his life ended within sight of the promised land; and many unnamed saints who endured physical torment for the sake of the eternal life that was their hope.

The point being made is that we should look not to be rewarded ourselves in our own lifetime, but to “store up treasures in heaven” as Jesus put it, by selflessly working for the benefit of others. This is so counter-cultural that it needs to be repeated often.  To quote Jesus again, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain”.  In other words, you have to put yourself out for the sake of others, before God can use you to grow his kingdom.

This Christmas, when we respond to charity appeals at the same time as feeding and giving presents to our families, let us remember that we celebrate the one who laid down his life that we might have fulness of life.

 

The Bible in a Year – 16 November

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16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.

 

The Bible in a Year – 8 November

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8 November. Mark chapters 8-9

It has often been remarked that Jesus’ closest disciples seem to have been particularly slow-witted men.  They are given the privilege of seeing Jesus perform many miracles, both those in public (such as the feeding of the four thousand and several healings, just in these two chapters) and those he performed just for them such as calming the storm. In addition, he took three of them with him up the mountain where he was transfigured into an angelic being alongside Moses and Elijah, and they all heard the voice of God (9:2-8).   Peter did, eventually, come out with it and say “you are the Messiah” (or Christ, 8:29).  Yet they still found it hard to accept it when Jesus performed another miracle, and when they tried and failed.

They also failed to understand Jesus’ “servant heart”.   He has just told them about having to “take up one’s cross” to follow him, and becoming great by being humble.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (8:36) is one of my favourite Bible verses, because it always challenges me to ask myself what I am giving up in order to serve God (the answer, usually, is “not enough”).  But only a short while later he has to reprimand them for arguing about which of them was the greatest (9:34) when he was trying to get them to work together as a team and be examples to others of self-sacrifice.

Jesus’ frustration with his disciples is echoed by the frustration felt by church leaders and preachers when most of the congregation seem to find it so hard to take on board the basic principles of the faith.  Like those whom Paul chides for being like infants who only want milk when they should have been weaned onto solid food, many who come to church seem to be unable or unwilling to even try and live Jesus’ way the rest of the week.  Those of us who do try, know that we never succeed completely, or much at all; but at least we are trying.

Jesus has a stern warning just after the “taking up the cross” challenge: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (8:38).   He is not asking to find people perfect when he returns, just to be “unashamed of me and my words”, in other words to be openly practising their faith and making enough of a difference in the world to be known as Christians.  The cry of the father of a troubled child might be ours too: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24)

The Bible in a Year – 7 November

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7 November. Mark chapters 6-7

In these chapters we see Jesus giving his closest disciples – “the Twelve” – an intensive training course.  For some time (months? Possibly a year or two?) they have been following him and watching him preach and heal. Now it is their turn.  They are sent out in pairs (still good practice, both for ‘safeguarding’ and as an encouragement to each other, but for Jesus it may have had more to do with the Jewish rule about the testimony of two witnesses being required to be valid).  They are told to take no food or money, and minimal clothing (6:7-11).  I have come across one missionary organisation working within Britain that applies this rule literally to their own volunteers – they must not use any of their own money, and must stay with host families and accept hospitality from them.  It’s not necessary, of course – St Paul took completely the opposite view and insisted on working for a living alongside preaching and pastoring, so as not to be a burden on his hosts.  But for these disciples, it was right, as they had to learn to live by faith.  The test of whether a village or household was willing to bear the cost of feeding and clothing these travelling preachers was a good indicator of whether they would accept their teaching too.

When they returned, tired from their ministry, Jesus took them away for a ‘debriefing’ and also rest and relaxation (6:30-32).  But it was just at that point that they found themselves followed by the great crowd of 5000 men (and women and children).  In feeding them miraculously, Jesus again gets the disciples to work – “no, I won’t feed them – you will”. By this, and the healings they had performed in the villages,  he shows them that his power can be at work in them even though he was not physically with them.  But it was not an easy lesson to learn – that same night when they were in difficulty in stormy weather on the lake, it was only when Jesus appeared that the storm was calmed – although he had probably knowingly sent them out on a stormy night as a test of their faith, and they failed.

When it comes to healing, though, faith is required in both the healer and the recipient, as Jesus found when he could perform few miracles in his own town where people did not believe that someone they had known well as a boy could be so extraordinary as an adult.

The power of Jesus is still available to those who believe – and yet the vast majority of his followers today, most of the time, do not use it.  I include myself there.  I, and most other Christians, are reluctant to try praying for people to be healed because I doubt that it will “work”. I think those who do exercise this gift must know in some intuitive way that God’s power is within them, and so must those who are healed.