The Apocrypha in Lent – 3 March

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

3 March. 2 Maccabees  chapters 12-15

These last chapters of the second book of Maccabees summarise the whole of the struggles of Judas and Simon against the Syrian armies, to the point where after the defeat of the Syrian general Nicanor “the city has remained in possession of the Hebrews” (15:37).  The whole period, so reminiscent of the present fighting in Syria with its multiple factions fired by religious and political zeal, does not make pleasant reading, even if tales of the destruction of tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians are exaggerating the figures.  Just a couple of points stand out as worth a mention:

One is the frequency with which political agreements and military truces are broken and the lack of trust between opponents.  Many times in the course of these books, enemy leaders hold peace talks – usually because one side or the other has suffered a heavy defeat and realises that they dare not risk another confrontation in the short term – but nearly every time the peace is broken, often very quickly.  We see this in today’s Syria too, where only last week a short truce intended to bring humanitarian aid to Ghouta failed almost before it had begun, and before any aid could be delivered.  The human spirit, especially in times of war, is inclined to mistrust those who have been opposed to us, and only with the aid of the Spirit of God can true peace be established.

It seems a chance had been missed by Nicanor in chapter 14, when he did maintain an agreed truce for long enough for his opponent Judas Maccabeus to lay down his arms, get married and settle down (so presumably years rather than months).  But he made the mistake of listening to one man – Lacimus, a former high priest in Jerusalem who had an axe to grind – and started treating Judas badly, thereby prompting a renewal of hostilities that led to his own defeat and death in battle.  One of the commonest cries of prayer to God recorded in battle is “How long, O Lord?” – usually meaning “how long until war stops and there will be peace in our land?” But the answer to the prayer lies in the hands of men as much as with God.

The other point concerns devotion to the Temple.  We read that in the final battle, “Their concern for their wives and children, their brothers and relatives, had shrunk to minute importance; their chief and greatest fear was for the consecrated Temple.” (15:18).  That, perhaps, was their greatest mistake – by these last centuries before Christ, the Temple which had twice been rebuilt had become not merely the centre of religious worship but a focus of adoration in itself – in a word, Idolatry.  They did not realise that they were breaking not only the commandment to worship nothing other than God himself, but also the ones about loving one’s neighbours and honouring one’s parents.

It is not surprising, then, that in the Gospel reading for today [4 March when I am actually writing this] Jesus condemns those who have turned the Temple into a market place, reminding them that its purpose is a place of prayer.  He then says to the Temple authorities “Destroy this temple” [probably pointing to himself], “and in three days I will raise it up.” Their reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”, shows that they fail to understand his point, that as God in human flesh he, and not the building, should be the focus of their worship from now on.  If the Maccabees and their zealous followers had paid more attention to their wives and children instead of arming themselves to fight to the death for the sake of the Temple, how would Jewish – or world- history have turned out differently?


The Bible in a Year – 21 October

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

21 October. Romans chapters 4 to 7

After a long explanation in the first four chapters of what makes Christian faith so special (see yesterday’s reading), Paul sums up like this, and here I quote the Good News Bible which uses simpler language: “Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (5:1)

Peace is not a word that Paul uses often, but it is an important one, as is the [Holy] Spirit – another word that Paul introduces in chapter 5 for the first time in this letter. Many of us long for a sense of peace in our lives.  Not only because we live in such a complicated, pressurised world these days.  But because even if we count ourselves as ordinary decent people, there is still that nagging sense of guilt, of things we have done badly and ways we could have been better people.  We feel we need to be “put right”.  Now the good news is, God can deal with all that.  How? This is where the idea of the Trinity can begin to make sense.

The word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible, as it is a concept developed by Christians several generations later, and still forms the basis of belief of most (but not all) Christian churches.  The relationship between the father (creator), son and spirit can the thought of like this:

Through the death of Jesus, who in his love took away our guilt on the cross, and with the gift of the Holy Spirit who brings us the benefits of Jesus rising from the dead, we can approach God the Father with confidence.  As Saint Paul puts it at the end of this short passage, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us” (5:5, GNB). So if Jesus brought a new way of being right with God (as I explained yesterday), the Spirit brings a new way of being at peace with God.

(based on part of a sermon preached on Trinity Sunday 2013 at Christ Church, East Greenwich).

The Bible in a Year – 25 June

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

25 June. Zechariah chapters 8-14.

In the first couple of chapters of this section, Zechariah’s prophecy follows the now familiar pattern of promising to restore Israel’s fortunes with Jerusalem as its capital, and judgement on their enemies.  It is within the latter – the triumph of the Jews over the surrounding nations – that there come perhaps the most-quoted  verses of this book of the Old Testament: “your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey …  he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:9-10).  That is because Jesus was seen to fulfil them, probably quite deliberately, when he entered the city the week before he was crucified.  Those who thought of the whole context of Zechariah’s message may have been encouraged to think in terms of military strength, but these verses are actually about God’s ultimate purpose of achieving peace on earth.


Earlier, we read the following: “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (8:4-5).  Again, this is a vision of a peaceful city, one in which its most vulnerable citizens (the old and the young) can live without fear.  Even in our societies today we are far from achieving that. It is more common for the old to live in “sheltered” accommodation as much for their safety as for the nursing care they may need, and for children to be kept indoors for fear of assault or abduction, than for them to be able to sit or play unsupervised in the street.


So was the prophecy a false one?  No, but it has always been the understanding of the Christian church that only when Jesus comes a second time in glory will true peace be established.  Zechariah seems to have foreseen that too, for in the last chapter his prophecy becomes ever more apocalyptic (telling of the last days), when the mountains near Jerusalem would split in two to allow the citizens to escape from a coming disaster, after which “the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him … And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” (14:5,9).


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.

The Bible in a Year – 29 April

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

29 April. Isaiah chapters 1-4

The reading plan I am following has gone from Genesis through to 2 Kings (with the exception of Ruth which is a later story). It now jumps forward in the Bible as we have it, but just slightly back in the order of events, to the first part of the book of Isaiah in which the exile of Judah to Babylon is prophesied.  The book is believed to have been written down during the exile, but Isaiah himself (if he was a historical figure) lived earlier, probably in the 8th century BC.


After the almost relentless histories of kings and battles, plots and feuds over several centuries (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) it is a relief to find in these opening chapters of Isaiah a more poetic approach to religion, even if the message is a hard-hitting one.  It seems that Isaiah was the first prophet to really understand firstly that the God of Israel (Yahweh/Jehovah) was not merely the greatest, but the only deity in existence; and secondly that “pure” or “true” religion is not about rituals and sacrifices, or even obeying religious laws, but about living in harmony with God and mankind.  We see this as early as Isaiah 1:13-17 (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. … cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”).


Even this early in what is a long book, there is the promise of future peace, and one of the most famous of Biblical visions: “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.” (2:4). That is a prediction of future times after Israel has been restored, and much suffering would come before then. But it is important for anyone threatening punishment for wrongdoing to offer the chance of redemption and the promise of restoration for those who acknowledge their wrongs and turn their backs on evil.  That is as true for the parent, schoolteacher or prison governor as for God himself.