The Apocrypha in Lent – 6 March

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

6 March. Wisdom chapters 9-12

So far, wisdom has been presented in an abstract way, but now in chapters 10-12 she is related specifically to Israel’s history.  How the Jews love to look back at their history – it means so much to them that God had made himself known to their ancestors, rescued them from slavery and oppression, performed miracles whenever the survival of the race was at stake.    But three times in this passage the author acknowledges that God showed “forbearance” not only towards them but also to their enemies – Egyptians and Canaanites.   For God’s mercy is always seen to triumph over judgement, as St James puts it.

This, again, is where God’s Wisdom differs, say from human concepts such as “common sense” or “natural justice”. Not that those are bad ideas, but Wisdom takes us beyond that, into the heart of God’s loving purposes.  No wonder that Christians have often identified Wisdom either with Jesus or the Holy Spirit, the two ways in which God makes himself known among us.

The Bible in a Year – 28 October

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

28 October. Matthew chapters 10-12

In these chapters, we see Jesus offering an intensive training course in evangelism to his disciples; then comparing himself with John the Baptist and with other figures in scripture such as the prophet Jonah (whose three days in a sea monster are seen as a prophecy of Jesus’ three nights in the tomb after Good Friday) and the “suffering servant” of the prophet Isaiah.

Given how much Jesus did and taught, and the relatively short length of each of the Gospels (restricted presumably by the length of the scrolls they were written on), the writers had to be economical with the material available.  So we rarely read of Jesus saying the same thing twice, though no doubt he did – any teaching is learnt best by being repeated several times.  But there is one phrase that occurs both in yesterday’s reading from chapter 9 when Jesus is criticised for eating in the house of a tax collector, and in 12:7 when he is criticised for letting his disciples pluck grain in a field on the Sabbath (and therefore “working” on the day when work was forbidden): “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.   This is what seems to have angered him most: people who were more concerned with the detailed religious rules that had been developed over the generations, than with the broad sweeping principles on which they were based, of which God’s mercy is the greatest.   St James uses a similar phrase: “mercy triumphs over judgement”.

Just as in yesterday’s reading, we saw that Jesus brought hope to the hopeless as much as healing to the sick, so today the overall message is one of God’s mercy being behind his whole ministry of gathering and sending his disciples.   That may be another reason why he mentioned Jonah, who was angry with God when God was merciful to the people of Nineveh: Jonah would have preferred judgement over mercy, but “something greater than Jonah is here!” (12:41) – it was time for mercy to take its rightful place.

The Bible in a Year – 16 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

16 July. Psalms 103-105

Going through the psalms we have seen how they cover a wide range of human experience, sometimes calling on God in desperation for his help, sometimes invoking his vengeance against enemies, and in between thanking him for his goodness.  But these three psalms are pure concentrated praise, a setting aside of all personal concerns to focus on the nature and acts of our Creator.

 

They are best read, I think, I the order 104-103-105, for this then mirrors the pattern of the days of creation in Genesis, and also the modern understanding of evolution and human history.

 

Psalm 104 considers the relationship God has with the creation as a whole: sun and moon, the earth as a whole, its mountains and oceans, its plants and animals, its weather patterns.  The harmony of the whole is portrayed here: each species has its natural habitat, they respond to the times and seasons, even “acts of God” such as earthquakes and lightning have their place in the natural order.  We forget at our peril that all this is God’s creation, and intended to work in harmony. It is not to be exploited by mankind beyond what we need for our food and shelter.

 

Psalm 103 celebrates God’s relationship with men and women as individuals.  We are exhorted not to forget all God’s “benefits”.  What are those?  Healing, forgiveness, redemption, love and mercy for a start (v.2-4).    If that were not enough, added to the list are vindication, justice, grace and compassion (v.6-13).  Why does God shower all these blessings on us?  The answer is in verse 14: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”. The one who made us, and knows how weak we are, how short our life in the context of eternity, how small we are in the context of the universe, will give us every help he possibly can – even when we have messed things up “by our own deliberate fault” as the prayer book puts it.

 

Psalm 105 goes on to describe the way God works with human society.  It focuses, as so many books in the Hebrew bible, on God’s covenant with Abraham and subsequent Exodus from Egypt, that defining moment when God used every power at his disposal, from natural plagues and floods to miraculous provision of light, food and water, to rescue the Israelites (the forerunners of the Jews).   But the Jews were not the “chosen people” only for their own sake. They were the tribes to whom God had given the special responsibility for bearing the good news of his love from one generation to the next until all humankind could hear it.

 

So in these three songs of praise we have the fullness of God’s relationship with creation, with humanity in particular, and most of all with those sent to proclaim his love to his creation.  Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

The Bible in a Year – 21 June

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

21 June. Micah

Micah, like the other prophets of his time, foresees both the imminent destruction of the Israelites’ cities and way of life, as punishment for the violence and corruption in them, and also the eventual restoration of the Jewish faith in their homeland in a new form, “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God” (6:8, adapted).  But here, instead of a series of images of disaster followed by those of return, the two are much more intermingled.  The wrath and mercy of God are not shown on an either/or basis – the eternal Father is not angry with his children’s behaviour one day and loving towards them the next, as a human parent might be.  At any one time he is both angry with our deliberate sins, and compassionate towards us. Jesus, of course, being (as we believe) both human and divine, showed both these attitudes.

 

In fact, several of the passages in this book are traditionally taken to be prophecies relating to Jesus. In particular the reference to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, as the home of a future ruler, “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2).    In other words, someone born in a particular place and time but also eternal.

 

Another frequently quoted passage, and a possible Messianic reference is found in 4:2-23 – “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.    Here the role of Jerusalem is seen as under God’s direct rule and the source of wisdom and peace for the whole world, which is what the Christian Church (the “new Jerusalem”) is supposed to be.

 

Less well known is this saying: “I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture; it will resound with people.  The one who breaks out will go up before them; they will break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king will pass on before them, the Lord at their head” (2:12-13).  This image of the king leading his people out like a shepherd echoes both Psalm 23, and also John 10:1-18 where Jesus speaks of himself is similar terms. It seems that Micah understood quite clearly the way in which God would come among us.