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 Apocrypha in Lent – 13 March

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

13 March, Ecclesiasticus chapters 15-18

Yesterday I wrote about the instruction to “be good to yourself”, not to let modesty lead to being unnecessarily harsh on oneself.   Today I am picking up on the passage 17:1-14, which follows from an account of the creation of the universe, earth and animals.  In these subsequent verses, the focus  narrows down on humanity in particular.

Verses 1-2 are honest about our limitations: we are made from earth, will go back to it when we die, and have a finite life span.    But this is followed by an appreciation of just how special we area – made in God’s image, master of other animals (though there is much debate these days over how that mastery should properly be employed), able to taste and smell, see and hear, to think and to judge.  Our purpose is to praise God and “tell of his magnificent works”, even to see and hear God himself (13).

Much of this repeats elements of the creation stories in Genesis.  But there is something different here. Verse 7, “he filled them with knowledge and understanding, and revealed to them good and evil”, seems to make this discernment between good and evil part of God’s plan, rather than the root of all sin as the Genesis account puts it. Like the exhortation we looked at yesterday to be good to your own self, it is a much more positive worldview than that of “traditional religion”.  Here is a God whose aim is to “clothe [people] with strength like his own” (3), to “show them the magnificence of his works” (8).  Humanity is something splendid, even when we are aware of right and wrong.  Here there is no banishment from Eden for seeking knowledge that should not be ours, only a desire that we should understand as much of God’s creation as we can.  That fits in with the whole idea of “seeking Wisdom” which is the theme of the book.

That’s not to say mankind is shown as perfect.  Later in the same chapter there is encouragement to repent of sin and leave it behind, turning to God’s mercy (25-29).  But fellowship with God is the default state, and he is never far away.

 

The Bible in a Year – 29 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).

29 December. Revelation chapters 6-11

The book of Revelation famously includes all kinds of fantastic scenes involving heaven and hell, angels, demons, imaginary beasts, plagues, natural disasters and divine punishments.  Few people would take it all literally, but among all these visions there is clearly a message to be found.  I think we need to look at those verses that refer to ordinary humans, for the overall aim of the revelation seems to be to encourage people to see God at work in otherwise unbearable circumstances.

Within today’s reading the first clear reference to the people of the earth is in 6:15-17, where “the kings of the earth, the princes, generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains”. In other words, the plagues affected all people equally, and neither wealth nor status could have protected people from them.   The other clear reference to life on earth is this : “The rest of mankind who were not killed by plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands: they did not stop worshipping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood … nor did they repent of their murders, magic arts, sexual immorality or thefts” (9:20-21).  That word “still” implies that the plagues, torture and other forms of suffering were intended as signs to persuade people to repent; signs that were ignored.

In these passages we see nothing different from the message of much of the Bible: that in God’s eyes, everyone is equal, whether powerful or slave, rich or poor; and that idolatry, theft, murder and sexual immorality (generally meaning adultery and promiscuity) are the sins that particularly incur God’s wrath.   These are among the sins condemned in the Ten Commandments, and therefore there is no new theology here.

The visions in Revelation might be taken either as referring to some future calamity that is yet to occur, or to events that happened nearer the writer’s time in the Roman empire, but either way, there is clearly intended to be a connection between these events and the lives of ordinary people.  High or low, rich or poor, the word of God comes to us equally: when sin becomes so rampant that God has to intervene, everyone suffers, but those who come out of the suffering with God’s favour are those who kept his commandments and suffered innocently. It is a message for all time.

 

The Bible in a Year – 18 November

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

18 November. Luke chapters 10-11

When people ask for a “sign” to prove that Jesus was truly the Son of God, he refers them to the story of Jonah.  Why Jonah?  He shares some things in common with Jesus: perhaps most obviously in the storytelling, as Jonah slept in the boat, a great storm blew up and his fellow passengers woke him, believing that he could calm the storm, just as Jesus did.  But Jonah was not the Messiah, in fact we are told that he was sinning by running away from God, and far from being able to calm the storm, only by being thrown overboard, apparently to certain death, could it be abated.  So when Jesus calmed the storm with a single word, he was reckoning himself greater than a prophet.

That explains Jesus’ next comment, “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (11:32). How else was Jesus greater?  Well he rose from the dead.  Jonah was in the darkness of the fish until the third day when it miraculously spewed him up, alive and unharmed, on dry land.  Likewise Jesus lay dead in the tomb until the third day, but he was resurrected.

Jonah was very unlike Jesus, though, in one respect. He loved the idea of preaching doom to the people of Nineveh but hated it when they obeyed the message and repented, and God spared them from destruction.  Jesus on the other hand wept over those who refused his message of salvation, and told of the joy there would be in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Which are you?  A Jonah who loves bringing bad news, or like Jesus, one who delights in bringing good news?

The Bible in a Year – 16 November

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

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 – 13 November

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

13 November. Luke chapter 1

The first chapter of Luke’s gospel begins with an assurance that he has researched it before writing it, and although clearly influenced by what Mark had previously written, he adds material of his own, which seems to have come from talking to Jesus’ extended family.  Thus, before getting to the matter of the start of Jesus’ ministry, or even his birth, he finds that the birth of both Jesus and John was prophesied by angels.    Such an annunciation was not unique – Abram and Sarah, and Hannah, had such angelic visits before the birth of Isaac and Samuel respectively.  But for it to happen twice in one year, and to members of the same family, that was something quite astounding.

John the Baptist is sometimes rather overlooked, although for Luke he seems to have been just as important in Jesus’ story as his mother Mary.  Jesus himself described John as “the greatest of those born of women”, and John’s ministry seems to have started well before that of Jesus although they were the same age.   He is often described as the forerunner or herald, the one whose role was to prepare people (by his baptism of repentance for sin) for Jesus whose task was the full reconciliation of people to God.

John’s feast day is traditionally 24 June (my birthday, as it happens). I presume that this is working backwards six months from the supposed date of Jesus’ birth (24 or 25 December) given that Luke puts the annunciation to Mary “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  It is probably appropriate to put them at opposite points in the circle of the Christian year, since their approach was diametrically opposed.  John, dedicated as a Nazirite who had to abstain from alcohol, also felt compelled to live the life of an ascetic hermit in the desert, fasting or eating  sparingly, clothed uncomfortably and preaching a hard message of judgement and repentance.

Jesus’ interpretation of the holy life was quite different – enjoying life’s pleasures in so far as they did no harm to anyone else, living in the midst of the people to whom he ministered, with a message that emphasised forgiveness and healing (but not suggesting that our actions do not matter).  But both of them were filled by the same Spirit and inspired by the same scriptures.

Whether you or I are more like a John or a Jesus in our interpretation of the religious life will depend on character, upbringing, the surrounding culture, and circumstances.  If you find meaning for your life in silence, fasting and penitence, that’s great, but don’t criticise those who find it in a more active lifestyle and the enjoyment of good food.  I am more of  a Jesus in that respect, despite sharing a birthday with John.  “Everything with thanksgiving” was St Paul’s motto, and it can be yours.

 

The Bible in a Year – 18 October

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

18 October. 2 Corinthians chapters 5-9

In chapter 5 Paul speaks of our present physical bodies (which he describes as like a ‘tent’ – a temporary dwelling) as if they do not really matter.  In fact our whole viewpoint should shift so that heaven becomes “home”, and being in this body in this life becomes like an “away match”. Or (to keep to his preferred metaphor) like being on trek in a foreign country and sleeping in a tent, while longing for the comforts of our real home.  The reason for this, he goes on to explain, is that we are a “new creation”, the idea that when someone repents of past wrongs and turns to Jesus Christ for a new life, it really is like a new birth.  Therefore this life in the body already belongs to the past, and the anticipation of the future life in our resurrection bodies (about which he had written in his first letter to the Corinthians) is the present reality.

Such a true and complete repentance does not often come about at a single step.  There are indeed those whose lives are transformed in a moment – drug addicts who drop the habit the moment they turn to Christ, prisoners who become Christians in jail and never return to crime when they are freed, violent people who never again speak a word in anger.  But for most of us, repentance and a growth into Christ-likeness are a lifelong journey with constant challenges and setbacks.  Paul explains how he had needed to write to the Corinthians (who had already declared their faith in Christ) in strong and critical terms in order to get them to see that they were still far short of a Christlike life.  But now he rejoices that they have recognised that, and made the effort to repent and move on to a new level of faith. He separates this from ordinary criticism by making the distinction between two types of “grief”: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (7:10).

I know that certain good and holy Christians have challenged me at various times about different aspects of my life and personality, producing at first resentment, then acknowledgment of the truth of their words, and finally this “holy grief” of which Paul speaks, that leads to salvation.

The Bible in a Year – 26 September

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

26 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 5-7

Solomon has now completed the Temple, and we come to the grand dedication service.  This was far more than the king and high priest blessing the building and declaring it open for worship: anyone of any significance was in Jerusalem for the occasion, and the celebrations went on for a week, with over a hundred thousand animals being sacrificed (and eaten, presumably).

Solomon’s prayer in chapter 6 is worthy of note.  He is kneeling (not standing) on a platform three cubits (about 1.5 metres) high so that everyone could see him. Why kneeling? It is a traditional posture in prayer (although other traditions favour standing, sitting or prostration in prayer). This week there has been a lot in the media about American sportsmen kneeling during the playing of their national anthem – are they to be criticised for “showing disrespect for their country”, or applauded for drawing attention to racial inequality?  In kneeling, they are perhaps trying to show respect for their country by showing respect for its citizens.  Solomon’s kneeling is certainly intended at least partly to indicate humility before God, but perhaps also to show that he intends to be a ‘servant king’ who respects his people.  He would not be entirely successful in that, of course – what national leader ever can? But he seems to have genuinely tried to be the wise and benevolent monarch.

In a series of formulaic prayers, Solomon recounts the various ways in which God punishes his people for their sin – military defeat, invasion, drought, crop disease, plague, sickness. He asks God to forgive those who acknowledge their sin in each of these circumstances and turn to him.

We do not think about sin and punishment in this way any longer, as we understand defeat and invasion to be the work of men, not God, and the other disasters to be ‘natural’ (though capable of mitigation with good planning and education).   But for those who believe in God, the principle remains that if we turn to him when things go wrong, then he will help us.  Belief in self-sufficiency and self-righteousness are the exact opposite of faith; it is when we express our need of divine help that we can be open to receive it.

There is a notable passage in 6:32-33, where Solomon asks God to treat foreigners with faith in the same way as the people of the promise.  Though Judaism is often thought of as a closed or tribal religion, unlike the missionary religions of Christianity and Islam, the idea of the ‘righteous gentile’ or proselyte who asks to join the people of Israel in their faith is a long-standing one.  Their God, and ours, is a god of inclusion, not exclusion.

The Bible in a Year. 14 August.

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

14 August. Job chapters 32-34

A new voice now enters the argument, that of the young man Elihu, who criticises the three elders for not having come up with a strong argument against Job.  He explains that he sees himself as an equal to Job, not a superior (33:6,7). But that does not mean he is taking Job’s side, rather he too seeks to prove that Job’s protestations of innocence are in themselves sinful.

 

In chapter 33 Elihu argues that God uses dreams, visions and angels to try and warn people of the error of their ways and bring them back into right paths.  It is through penitence and prayer that one is forgiven.  In the following chapter he also asserts, as others did, that suffering must be the result of sin, and that Job, in presenting himself as righteous, is “speaking without knowledge or insight”.

 

The idea that there is a causal connection between sin and suffering is one that does not go away easily.  Even after 2000 years of Christianity, the gospel message is still shocking – that God does not count our sins against us, and is always willing to accept our repentance. Suffering, far from being a punishment for sin, is something in which God himself, through the incarnation of Jesus, has shared with us.

The Bible in a Year – 17 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.

17 July. Psalms 106-107

Psalm 106 is titled in the NRSV “A confession of Israel’s sins”.  Confession of sin is something strange to many people nowadays, something only done in religious ritual.  But even then, the focus tends to be on our own personal sins.  Even when a church congregation says a prayer of confession together using the word ”we” rather than “I,” most people will be thinking of their own shortcomings rather than daring to do so on behalf of anyone else.

Sometimes there is a call for national leaders to acknowledge the wrongdoings of their predecessors – to “apologise” for treating immigrants as slaves, women as mere property, or indigenous peoples as animals to be culled.  But apology stops short of confession and repentance.  That’s not to say that today’s leaders would endorse those practices, but they merely distance “us” from our ancestors who behaved so badly.

The Biblical form of national confession is different.  Verse 6 puts it clearly: “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly”.  That is, our sins may be different (there is no suggestion of child sacrifice or idolatry in the later centuries of Jewish history) but we are no better than them.

But is that being too harsh on our leaders?  What is needed is a national repentance, a collective turning back to God. We cannot expect politicians or even bishops to achieve that.  What they could do, though, is be bold enough to challenge their fellow citizens to examine their own consciences and seek to “do justly and love mercy” as Micah put it. In a pluralist society “walk humbly with your God” is not a phrase that politicians can use without accusations of bias, but bishops can.

 

The first 32 verses of Psalm 107 consist of the potted stories of unnamed people (although the writer probably had well known folk heroes in mind) who suffered in various ways – exiled, lost, starving, thirsting, imprisoned, enslaved, sick and dying, and in peril on the sea.  In each case they cried to God, he saved them and they gave him thanks.  It is the ever-repeated pattern of encountering God and his saving power in the darkest times of life.

The following six verses go further and tell of how God actively works for the benefit of his people – he provides springs in the desert, so they can build towns to live in, farm the land and become plentiful and numerous.  This is a story of co-operation between the Creator and his people, in which he provides the resources, and the skills with which to use them.