The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 February.

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

20 February. Judith chapters 8-10

These chapters introduce the main protagonist in the story, and show us various different aspects of her complex character.  In chapter 8, Judith is shown as a widow who has been mourning her late husband for several years: a pitiable figure, though she had been left riches.  When the siege reaches crisis point, though, she comes out of her shell and takes part in the discussions.

In ‘democratic’ Britain it is only in the last few decades that we have had elected women leaders (though of course we have had a hereditary Queen for more than half of the last two hundred years). Before that, misogyny ruled. But the Bible, written so long ago, shows us that women can be born leaders.  Judith is not the only example – Miriam and Deborah (and as we shall see, also Jael) would have been her inspiration.  In the presence of the male elders, Judith comes across as a good orator and a courageous leader: the Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of her day, if you like (without comment on their policies).  Except that unlike them, she was also beautiful, which was an extra string to her bow in what she was planning.

In chapter 9, Judith is seen as a holy woman, willing to cast aside any privilege and pride and humble herself before God.  Her prayer is in the Hebrew tradition of praising God for his mighty acts of the past, before petitioning him for present needs, although she starts with reference to some recent incident when the enemy’s use of rape as a tactic of war resulted in God (through the men of her tribe, presumably) taking vengeance on them.  At the core of her prayer is a statement of dependence on God which has echoes of Mary’s Magnificat: “Your strength does not lie in numbers, nor your might in violent men: since you are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the  weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the saviour of the despairing” (9:11).

Then in chapter 10, she becomes the Mata Hari figure, the glamorous double-agent who charms her way into the enemy camp as a friend while actually being a spy.  So this complex woman – widow, orator, politician, intercessor, beauty and spy – takes her place ready to let God work through her.

Each of us will have been given a different mix of gifts by God, but not all of them may seem to be used all the time. There might only be one time in our lives when all that we are will come together to achieve something for him that no-one else could.  But as Judith acknowledges in her prayer, all we can do is make ourselves available to be used.

The Bible in a Year – 14 November

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

14 November. Luke chapters 2-3

Chapter 2 of Luke is probably one of the best known passages of the Bible – at least the first twenty verses about the birth of Jesus and the visitation of the shepherds, a story retold at every nativity play and carol service.  For Anglicans, verses 29-32 are also very familiar in a slightly different translation as the “Nunc dimittis” said or sung daily at Evensong in cathedrals.

So I am going to look at chapter 3 – continuing the story of John the Baptist that was started yesterday with his own miraculous conception.  Thirty years on, John and Jesus were both called by God to the tasks for which they had been destined.  We don’t know how long John had been proclaiming his message of repentance before Jesus came to be baptised, or how long he had lived a solitary life in the desert before that until he received the “Word of God” (3:2), i.e. the conviction that God was about to appear in a new and unique way that demanded special spiritual preparation.  But it might not have been very long, for his “unofficial” ministry made him unpopular with the religious elite, as well as the secular authorities.  It seems that soon after Jesus was baptised, John was arrested.

So the baptism at the Jordan of Jesus by his only-slightly-older relative was a moment of handover, when the Holy Spirit that had been in John descended on Jesus in more dramatic form – in appearance as a dove, but with the voice of God from heave (3:22).  This is reminiscent of the occasion when Elijah as he was taken up into heaven, passed his robe and with it a “double share of his spirit” to Elisha.    On this occasion, the message of self-denial and repentance was about to be replaced with one of rejoicing and healing – fulness of life.

For everyone who turns to God, there is a unique ministry – not preordained in every detail, but to worked out with God and other people according to our aptitudes and character.  No-one (other than Jesus) is perfect, we all have weaknesses as well as strengths.  Sometimes God arranges it that one person will follow another in a particular situation (such as a parish priest or teacher) with gifts that are different but complimentary.   A caring pastor might be succeeded by a brilliant preacher or gifted evangelist, drawing a different set of people into the church.  Or in the progress of one group of pupils through school, a teacher who is rigorous in teaching theory might be followed by one skilled at illustrations and practical exercises.

So there is no point worrying whether there are some aspects of your faith or career at which you are weak, as long as there are others at which you are strong.  Leave it to God to fill in the gaps.


The Bible in a Year – 15 October

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

15 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14

These three chapters deal with the sometimes contentious, and often misunderstood, question of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Seeing that the Alpha course takes a whole day (or even weekend) to explore this topic, I cannot cover it adequately in a few hundred words.   But it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is not simply some mysterious force that takes over a small number of people and enables them to perform miracles such as healing, or discerning what is going on in someone else’s life.  Paul does refer to those ‘gifts’, but they are rare.   Speaking in tongues (praising God in a private language) is more common, but still not part of regular mainstream Christian experience.

What Paul is at pains to point out is that the Holy Spirit (who is the presence of God among us, sent after the ascension of Jesus) gives all kinds of gifts, which are intended partly for building up the faith of the individual, but mainly for building up the faith of the congregation and empowering the ministry of the whole church in the world. Such gifts include leadership, preaching and teaching, leading worship and pastoral care, which are the mainstay of authorised Christian ministry.  But above all Paul prizes prophesy – the understanding and sharing of a message given directly by God for a particular situation.  The prophet may well also be the priest or pastor, but not necessarily.  That is why he insists at the end of this passage that public worship must be orderly, with only one person speaking at once, and the rest of the congregation paying attention.

For the same reason, Paul emphasises that the Lord’s Supper (which became the communion, eucharist or mass in later tradition) is about gathering to share bread and wine as if they were the actual body and blood of Christ, which unites us.  The practice that the Corinthians seem to have had is something more like a picnic where every family brought their own meal and were not even willing to share food with those who had brought nothing.

So whether you personally, or your church, experience the more miraculous gifts, and in whatever way you celebrate the Lord’s supper, never forget that all the Spirit’s gifts are given for the church, and not just for you.  We are one body.

The Bible in a Year – 26 August

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

Introductory notes to Esther

The book of Esther in the ‘standard’ Bible, i.e. the one generally read by the Protestant church, consists of ten chapters.  It is in fact an abridged version of the full story as found in the Greek (Septuagint) Bible still used by the Catholic Church and which consists of 16 chapters. However scholarship has shown that these are out of order.

 I am commenting on the fuller text as set out in the Revised Standard Version Common Bible (Collins edition, 1973), which sets these 16 chapters out in a sequence that tells the story of Esther in its natural order. This is why the chapter numbers may appear in my comments to be out of order.  I hope that makes sense.  In this version, the name of the King is Ahasuerus.  In other translations this Babylonian name is rendered Xerxes (don’t ask me why!)

26 August. Esther chapters 4-6

The story of Esther, Mordecai and Haman continues to unfold. Yesterday’s cliff-hanger left us fearing for the future of the Jewish people who were about to be exterminated throughout the Babylonian empire.  Now, Mordecai whose refusal to bow to Haman was the cause of the plot turns to fasting and prayer, and persuades Esther to do the same.

The additional chapters 13 and 14 in the full text give us the words of their prayers to God.  Chapter 15 then elaborates on the meeting between Esther and her husband King Ahasuerus in chapter 5 of the abridged version.

These additional chapters show Esther’s true character. She, the queen, is not only willing to fast for the sake of her people, but goes beyond the usual sackcloth and ashes by covering her head in dung (of which animal is not specified). She claims that wearing a royal crown is so awful that she considers it ‘like a menstrual rag’.  She also shows remarkable cunning in the way she approaches the king: she pretends to faint in fear to win his sympathy, and does not tell him at once about Haman’s plot, but invites the king and Haman to banquets on two successive nights.

In between the two banquets, Haman’s pride sets him up for a fall as he has a gallows built for Mordecai to be hung from. But before the second night, the king discovers Mordecai’s previous act of courage in foiling a plot against the king, and decides to honour Mordecai even above Haman, who then has to bear the humiliation of leading Mordecai round the city and praising him.

What is to be learnt from this? One phrase from this book that is often quoted to show the way God works through individuals is this: “who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (4:14) – in other words, God plants people in particular places or roles at particular times so that their experience and gifts may be used for the benefit of others.

Also, chapters 13 and 14 are model forms of intercession: praising God, remembering his mercies in past times, bringing the current need before him, calling on God to act, and finally explaining the benefits not only to the intercessor but the God himself if the prayer is answered. Anglican collects (public prayers for the day or for a particular circumstance) still follow the same sort of pattern, in abbreviated form.