The Apocrypha in Lent – 3 March

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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 – 6 December

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6 December. Acts chapters 20-22

These chapters cover the end of Paul’s missionary journeys, as he returns to Jerusalem where he knows (from his own revelation and the prophecies of others) that he will be arrested and tried.  But he goes voluntarily, like Jesus on his own final journey to Jerusalem, believing that this is God’s will.  In each place he goes along the way, where there are existing communities of Christians, he makes his farewell speech, sometimes (as at Troas, 20:7-11) lasting all night.

We can get an idea of what his farewell speech would have focused on from the episode in Miletus (20:28-35) where he summons the elders (whom he also addressed as “overseers”, the term for what became bishops) from the church in the region known as Asia (meaning part of what is now western Turkey, not the whole continent) and speaks to them, urging them to be pastors to the church members like shepherds with their sheep, to teach the message of God’s grace, and to watch out for charismatic leaders who might lead people astray by ‘false’ teaching.   These remain the core responsibilities of bishops and other ministers today. They all face the tricky task of balancing these duties of pastoral Care, preaching and teaching, and making a public stand against any challenge to the Church.

In Jerusalem it happens just as predicted: Paul is arrested following a mob charge that starts with a false accusation that he has brought Gentiles into the temple.  When brought before the tribune (a low level Roman official) he avoids being flogged by playing the “get out of jail card” of Roman citizenship that I mentioned a couple of days ago.

The sensitivity over who was entitled to use the Temple was nothing new, as it had been a sacred site for the Jews for centuries. Even in today’s news, there is controversy over Jerusalem because the United States wants to have an embassy there. This would apparently be seen by Palestinians as recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and therefore (though there is no apparent logic in this) denying their rights to a share of the city, in which the Temple site (now a Muslim holy place) stands.

Christianity, although regarding Jerusalem as a holy place because of Jesus’ death and resurrection there, makes no territorial claim to it.  To visit the holy city as a pilgrim must be wonderful (I have yet to do it) but it must also be remembered that Jesus called the Temple “a house of prayer for all nations”.  Jerusalem’s role now should be to welcome all who worship the God of Abraham, and to “pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6)  is a command that never ceases to be relevant.

The Bible in a Year – 22 November

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22 November. Luke chapters 19-20

This is the turning point in Luke’s story of the life of Jesus – what is called the Triumphal Entry.  Every year on Palm Sunday, churches re-enact his ride into Jerusalem on a young donkey, with crowds cheering him on with shouts of “Hosanna!” (“Please save us!”). We even keep small crosses made of palm leaves to remind us for the rest of the year both of his joyful entry to the holy city, and also his crucifixion a few days later.

After entering the city, Jesus goes straight to the temple (did he ride the donkey into it? – we don’t know) and begins to drive out “those who were selling things there” (other gospel writers say it was the money changers – probably both).   He was angry with them for turning what was supposed to be a “house of prayer” into a commercial enterprise.   This passage is sometimes used to criticise those cathedrals that charge an entry fee, although I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, as the cathedral chapter is only trying to cover its running costs from visitors who otherwise might not make a donation at all.

So we have Jesus being acclaimed by the crowd in great joy, then maybe an hour later angrily confronting the temple merchants.  What made him change his mood so swiftly?

In between these two passages are a few verses that get less attention in Holy Week observances.  “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (19:41-44).

It seems that as he approached the city walls, he was given a prophetic insight into the spiritual truth behind the immediate events around him.  He saw the Roman army marching against the city, laying siege, conquering, looting and setting fire to it.  His own act of driving profiteering merchants from the temple court was nothing to the sacking of the city that the Romans would accomplish a generation later, driving all the Jewish people from the city. It would be nearly 2000 years before the city was once again the City of David, and even then the temple site would be in the control of others.

Jesus also understood that this would happen because his own people had rejected him, rejected his peaceful path, passed up an opportunity to turn back to God.  Instead their desire for independence and their love of money and power would lead to their destruction, where he offered salvation.  No wonder he wept.

Probably only those closest to Jesus in the crowd noticed his weeping, as the praise continued around him. Sometimes we find our own emotions at odds with the people around, when we are aware of circumstances beyond the immediate events that give us concern. We might wish that those who are rejoicing at some trivial matter would share our understanding that there are deeper and graver issues at stake.  But like Jesus, we find ourselves alone.  In such circumstances, take heart, for he is with you, and he understands.  Jesus weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn.

The Bible in a Year – 3 October

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3 October. 2 Chronicles 28-29

Yesterday’s reading covered the reigns of Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham who were all somewhat half-hearted in their attitude to God – generally supportive of Temple worship, but sinful in other ways. In their time the split between Judah and the rest of Israel was deepened by unnecessary and pointless conflict.

Under the next king of Judah, Ahaz, things get even worse.  He seems not to make even a pretence of following inherited tradition but openly embraces paganism and shuts down the Temple. In his day, too, both Israel and their common enemies Aram and Assyria attack Judah; the army Israel even carries its people away as slaves, until the little known prophet Oded, plus a few tribal leaders, condemn them for taking captive those who should be their compatriots. The Biblical account leaves no doubt that the apostasy of the king is the direct cause of these defeats.

Hezekiah, as a young man, must have been appalled and frustrated at his father’s behaviour, for the very first act of his reign, within days of his coronation, is to begin restoring the Temple and its worship, to show that he intended to be different, and to revert to the historic patterns of life in Judah.

This sudden swing between a king who follows the Mosaic laws and one who does not, or vice-versa, is a pattern we have seen throughout the history of Israel. Often it seems to have been accompanied by the persecution of the “other side”, much as in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries there was much blood shed in the alternation of Catholic and Protestant monarchs.   That, and the almost unforeseeable genocides that have taken place in countries such as Rwanda and Serbia in our own lifetime, remind us that the link between religion and violence (or ethnicity and violence) is one that will not go away.  The peaceful and tolerant practice of religion is never to be taken for granted.

The Bible in a Year – 25 September

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25 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 1-4

If 1 Chronicles was mostly about the reign of King David, the second part of the work is mostly about the reign of Solomon. It starts with the building of the Temple, with which David had charged him.

If there is one thing that stands out to me reading this, it is that the world of the ancient near east – known from the earliest times for its trade routes – suddenly seems to have become much more commercialised. This is summarised in 1:15 as “The king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar [a Lebanese import] as plentiful as the sycomore of the Shephelah.”  Going by the English translation, words such as “import” and “export” appear, possibly for the first time in the Bible.

To achieve such a project, which was four years in the planning before construction started (3:2), required significant international trade.  Solomon negotiated with Hiram (or Huram) of Tyre for supplies of large quantities of timber, with payment in cereals, oil and wine.  The chief craftsman was also recruited from Tyre, and was of mixed race – Huram-Abi, “the son of one of the Danite women, his father a Tyrian” (2:13).  Gone, it seems, was any sense of God’s people needing to keep themselves pure by not mixing with foreigners.  Economic progress tends to go hand-in-hand with international trade, and with migration of labour as an essential adjunct.  Which is why it seems to me (if I may be permitted a political statement) crazy to think that Britain leaving the EU and restricting migration could ever be economically beneficial.

The Temple may have had a mainly religious purpose, but its benefits in terms of economic growth, international co-operation and technical expertise were enormous.  Solomon’s request to God for wisdom and skill in managing the Temple project and ruling his growing nation was indeed rewarded, as God promised him, with unsought riches.

But that is not to say it benefited everyone in the land. More controversially to our eyes, the Temple was to be built with conscripted labour.  A census identified 153,600 aliens (immigrants) in the land, and all of them were conscripted either as quarrymen, builders or overseers thereof.  Probably not quite slaves, but ‘bonded labour’ might be a reasonable term, and the overseers were also recruited from their own communities rather than Israelites, much as the ‘gangmasters’ in charge of large numbers of immigrant labourers in the UK today – who often lack fair wages and other legal rights as a result.

The Bible in a Year – 21 September

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21 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 21-23

Much of what will follow these chapters concerns the building of the Temple.  Chapters 21 and 22 provide the “back story” to it construction (written several hundred years later, so presumably passed down orally until then).

We already know from chapter 17 that God had told David that the Temple was to be built in his son’s lifetime and not his own.  But David, following the letter if not the spirit of God’s command, decided as an old man to start on collecting the materials and labour for the work before his death.  But where to build it?

The story in chapter 21 of the angel at the threshing floor of Ornan raises some interesting ideas.  David is tempted by Satan to take a census with the implied intention of starting another military campaign, and is punished by God for doing so.  These days only a minority of Christians believe in Satan as a real and powerful personality (but those who do, take him very seriously).  Rather more will admit the existence of spirits or angels generally, and I know a few people who claim to have seen angels. But they tend to appear to individuals with a personal message or practical support in times of danger.  The angel in this passage is different – the “destroying angel” sent by God to bring a plague on Jerusalem as punishment for David’s hubris, and visible to all who would look up and see it.  With sufficient penitence shown by David and others, God relents and spares the city. The personal cost to David of his sin was the gold with which he bought the site of the angelic appearance to build an altar.

Whatever this visible angel might have been, and whatever we are to understand by the battle for a human soul between God and Satan (as in the book of Job), the consequences were enormous.  Israel moved in the following generations from being a nation with many localised altars as centres of worship to a centralised system with one huge Temple in Jerusalem.  David acknowledged that the period of warfare over which he had presided was at an end, and instructed Solomon to reign in peace.  And from that day to this, the site of the threshing floor of Ornan has been a place of pilgrimage for millions, whether as Jewish Temple or (in its current form as the Dome of the Rock) for Muslims.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that, at a time of crisis, God will act in whatever way in necessary to guide people towards doing his will.  In none of this is there any sense of compulsion: David could have ignored the words of the prophet Gad and carried on with rearmament, probably with disastrous consequences; he could have chosen one of God’s other punishment options (famine or defeat in battle), probably losing the kingship as a result; he could have ignored the presence of the angel (as Ornan did initially), in which case presumably Jerusalem would have suffered the plaque, again with severe consequences for the whole country.

But David was a man of faith. Although he sinned by letting Satan tempt him to a wrong action at the start of the story (not that Satan appeared to him visibly; his temptations are more subtle than that), he knew when God was speaking to him, whether by prophets, angels or through religious laws, and he obeyed.  So the future of God’s people was assured for another generation.

The Bible in a Year – 23 June

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23 June. Zephaniah.

Another short prophecy, like many of the others before the fall of Jerusalem.  The difference here is that the prophet is identified as “Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah”, in other words the great-great-grandson of one of the greatest kings of Judah – a member of the royal family.  That was no guarantee that his prophetic words would be heeded, for as Jesus said, “no prophet is welcome in his home town”.

 

Obviously the statement at the beginning that God would “utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” is not to be taken literally, but it does remind us of the promise to Noah after the flood that God would never do anything so drastic again. In fact this is negated in 3:11-13 where it is made clear that although the “haughty” would be destroyed, while the humble and lowly would be honoured and spared. What it means is that the destruction of Jerusalem would be so traumatic for the Jewish people that it would seem like the end of the world.  The description of this event as “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish” (1:15) became the dies irae, dies illa in the Latin requiem mass, a prayer for God to rescue us from the “day of wrath and doom impending” – we always need to remember that God’s love expects us to obey him, and those who do not risk his anger.

 

Like many of the other prophets of this period Zephaniah alternates between prophecies of destruction – both for Judah and for her enemies including Nineveh (Assyria) – and those of salvation for a remnant of the chosen people. And it ends with a song of praise.

Haggai 1-2

For the last few weeks we have been looking at the prophets who came before the fall of Jerusalem and predicted its downfall.  Now we jump to the end of the exile, seventy years later, and Zerubbabel (who was a kind of pretender to the throne) who led the first group of settlers to return.

The commentary explains that Zerubbabel set about rebuilding the temple, but the work was delayed for several years for political reasons. Haggai comes on the scene at the end of this period, and criticises the leaders of the community for living in “panelled houses” while the Lord’s house had been neglected.  He therefore inspires them to resume rebuilding the Temple, and explains that God’s blessing on their crops would result from their obedience, whereas during the years of stagnation they had also experienced crop failure.

The Bible in a Year – 12-13 June.

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12-13 June. Ezekiel chapters 42-45

The vision that Ezekiel is given of a future temple is completed, first the building, then the purpose of its chambers is given, and then the glory of God is seen returning to the new Temple, just as in a previous vision Ezekiel had seen it departing. In this, God was promising a new start for his people.  Their ancestors’ sin had finally driven the presence of God away from them, but he would return to start a new relationship with them.

 

But this is still very much a priestly understanding of worship, all about sacrifice by priests on behalf of the people.   It was not yet a revelation of the New Covenant that Jesus brought.  So the presence of God is followed by the erection of a huge altar, chapter 44 defines who can be a priest and what their responsibilities would be, and chapter 45 includes instructions for where they would live and for offerings and festivals, just as found in the book of Leviticus. There would have been no point (to the understanding of the Jews of his day) in offering sacrifice until God’s presence was there.  Religion should never consist only of ritual for its own sake; any ritual should only serve to honour the presence of God and bring people into his presence.

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 11 June

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11 June. Ezekiel chapters 38-41

Chapters 38-39 are totally unexpected after what came before, and seem out of place here. Just as Ezekiel has started describing God’s favour to the Israelites and promising them peace and security, here comes a prophecy of a future invasion by “Gog” against their unprotected towns and villages.   The Israelites would win, however, and God’s punishment would be on Gog.  So, unexpectedly, we are back to an older understanding of God pitting one country against another and judging whole peoples rather than individuals.

 

At the beginning of Chapter 40 Ezekiel is transported in the Spirit to Jerusalem for a second time (the first such experience, described in chapters 8-11, was to reveal the future destruction of the city). As I explained then [1 June], such experience of physical transportation from one place to another as a part of extreme spiritual experience is not unique in religious writings.   From here to chapter 45, Ezekiel is given a vision of a future temple.  Chapters 40-41 are concerned with the overall dimensions of the walls, gates and the buildings within the courtyard.

 

Although the basic concept of outer and inner courts, nave and “most holy place” are familiar both from Solomon’s earlier temple and in later Christian church plans, the description of this structure is not that of the temple that was actually built in the following generations under Nehemiah.  Depending on which websites you look at (Jewish or Christian) and on your understanding (if any) of the “Millennium” referred to by some Christians, it might have been a vision for how that temple should have been built, or for an actual physical temple that will, someday, be built, or it may be an allegory of some kind.  The latter view is taken by this website  which does include a helpful 3-D illustration of Ezekiel’s vision.

 

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 24 April

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24 April. 2 Kings chapters 12-14

The next few chapters give a list of kings of Judah and Israel, many of whom only reigned for a short time before they were killed either in battle or by internal rivals. It was clearly a very unsettled time in the history of both kingdoms.

 

But at the start of this section is an extended story of how the money that was supposed to be set aside for repairing the temple in Jerusalem had not been used for that purpose for many years. Instead, it seems, it had been either used to make yet more silver and gold items (as if they did not have enough already) or simply taken by the priests for their own purposes.  So king Jeohash of Judah (confusingly, Israel had a king of the same name bout the same time) made a sealed chest to ensure that the money was set aside for the right purpose, and had the temple properly repaired.  The gold and silver, meanwhile, were used to pay off the Aramaeans and avoid another war for a while.

 

This interests me as my professional role involves repair of church buildings.  Local congregations are always advised to make sure their buildings are wind- and watertight and generally in good repair as a priority. In the Church of England they even have a legal obligation to have a surveyor or architect inspect the building every five years and make a list of repairs needed.  But it is all too common to find that a congregation goes for at least one, sometimes several five year period without carrying out any of the recommended repairs, while still finding money for other purposes.  Sadly, it often ends up with the church building needing hundreds of thousands of pounds spending on it, and being proposed for closure.

 

The worship of God, of course, does not require special buildings, and many Christians meet in people’s homes, hired halls, or conference centres depending on their numbers.  And if we do have church buildings, they should not be the prime focus of our activity – the work of the kingdom of God happens out in the community as much as in church.  But if we do have church buildings, God is interested in them being fit for purpose, be they great temples or tin shacks.