The Bible in a Year – 12 November

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

12 November. Mark chapters 15-16

Today is Remembrance Sunday.  Along with hundreds of people of all faiths and none from our local community, I attended the act of remembrance at our local war memorial in Bramley Park.  We had readings from the book of Micah (common scripture to Jews and Christians) and prayers from Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith leaders as well as some words from local councillors and representatives of the armed services.

The common theme of such acts of remembrance is praise for those who have died in the service of their country.  If pressed, I am sure the families of those victims would admit that their son, brother or uncle was not a perfect person, for none of us is perfect.  But this is not the time to point out faults.  If someone has taken it upon himself (or increasingly, herself) to fight in defence of their people or for the sake of human rights, then it is commonly acknowledged that such sacrifice deserves more than mere respect. It is accepted that laying down one’s life for others is of such moral value that it wipes out any faults that the person might have had, and leaves them fit to receive the accolade of “hero” – maybe even a posthumous medal.

Jesus did not give up his life in military service. In fact, while accepting the necessity of armed forces (he told soldiers who wished to follow him, not to desert their posts but to do their job faithfully and impartially), he himself was a man of peace, critical of those among his disciples who wished to take up arms.  Yet, we recognise that he did voluntarily lay down his life.  He could have just been a provincial rabbi, but instead he followed the insistent calling of the Holy Spirit to a unique ministry that he knew from early on would lead to his being martyred.

In giving himself up in this way, the perfect man for the sake of the imperfect, Jesus won a title that is far greater than that of a war hero, or even an ordinary person killed for their outspoken words of truth such as Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero.  Even the Roman centurion who was in charge of the execution called him “a son of God” (15:39).  To the writers of the Gospels, including Mark (who may have been one of Jesus’ disciples), the resurrection and the place at the right hand of God (16:19) were the fitting reward for this sacrifice.

Once a year we remember the war dead of the world.  But every week (or in some communities, every day) Christians gather to remember the death of Jesus as we share the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.  As we approach the communion table, we proclaim: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!”  That is true remembrance.

The Bible in a Year. 3 August.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

3 August. Proverbs chapters 24-26

From today’s reading I will take one saying found in 24:10-12:

“If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this’—does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?”

In this interconnected world of ours, we have no excuse these days of “we did not know this”.  Every day our screens show us some of the worst things that are happening in the world, whether it is a ‘natural’ famine or flood (which is probably exacerbated by human-induced climate change anyway), or wars or terrorism, or political decisions such as oppression of minorities.  For every one brought to us by the BBC or Facebook, there are many more that we can find out about easily, if we want to, through the humanitarian agencies who do their bit to alleviate human suffering.

But in the words of Harari, “there are no longer any natural famines, only political ones”.  In other words, humanity has the power to feed the world, to virtually eradicate most diseases, to put down weapons and invest in peace.  It is only the sin of human pride that spends money instead on armaments and vanity projects.

It is not only at a national level that this applies.  St Paul was quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 when he wrote to the Romans “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.”  If it is no excuse to say “we did not know”, it is also no excuse to say of those suffering close to home “they are not ours”.  For we are all God’s children, and whatever we have is given to us to help others.

 

The Bible in a Year – 5 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.

If you are a regular visitor and wondering why the posts stop at 4 July it is just because I have been away for a few days – making notes but without the opportunity to post them online.  So we will catch up shortly.

5 July. Psalms 46-50

Psalms 42-49 are all headed “of the sons of Korah”. Perhaps they were a group of musicians who played for temple worship.

At present we need little reminder that “the nations are in uproar” (46:5), with violent demonstrations against world leaders in Hamburg this week, continuing warfare in the Middle East, central Africa and other places, and increasing numbers of migrants seeking asylum in more settled countries. But the Biblical response is to hold on in faith, even if the “whole world melts” (which with nuclear tensions building up again between America and North Korea does not seem much of an exaggerated fear). God, his support for the vulnerable, and his strength for the weak, will never cease.

 

Psalm 47 stands out from most of the others with its positive affirmation of monotheism – there is one God who rules over all the kingdoms of the earth.  The triumphal shout that “God has gone up!” is seen by Christians as a prophecy of the ascension of Jesus, forty days after his resurrection. Whether we think of that as a literal or metaphorical description of what happened, all Christians can agree that Jesus is now the “king of all nations” in a way that is much more real than when the Jews had to have faith in an unseen God.

 

Psalm 49 turns our thoughts to the unavoidable subject of our own mortality, with a reminder that, as we say in English, “you can’t take your money with you when you go [to heaven]”.  Riches (“mammon”) have no real existence, nor does the human body after death.   All that remain are the soul, and God’s memory of our thoughts, words and deeds.  Some of the verses, “No-one can redeem the life of another or give God a ransom for him – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough – that he should live for ever and not see decay” (49:7-9), are a worldview that is in fact overturned by the death of Jesus. We believe that in fact he did, by his death, ransom all people to God at great cost, so that they may have the opportunity of eternal life – free from guilt in this life, and with the promise of resurrection to a new life with a new kind of body beyond death.

 

The Bible in a Year – 24-26 February

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

February 24-26. Numbers 31-36

I have grouped together this weekend’s readings, being the last six chapters of this book. Each tackles a different aspect of the run-up to the crossing of the Jordan.

 

They start with gruesome reading, the near-destruction in chapter 31 of the Midianites. Only unmarried girls and women are allowed to live (and even then, only to become ‘brides’ for the invading soldiers, and all the animals and precious metals taken as spoils of war.  Nothing could be further from a ‘modern’ understanding of religion, and yet it invites comparison to the way that Daesh is still carrying on its jihad in nearby Syria today.  The belief that God would not only select one nation as special (which is the foundational principle of the Old Testament), but order them to destroy all rival civilisations they encounter, still persists and must be resisted.   Yet this was only the beginning of the long campaign of Israelite terror in Canaan that we will return to in the Book of Judges.

 

The story then moves on to the intended division of land after further conquests have been achieved.  Two and a half of the twelve tribes, being pastoralists, will settle in the (destroyed but to be re-built) Midianite towns but only after their men have done their share of fighting. The remainder will settle in the more fertile land west of the Jordan – the promised ‘land of milk and honey’.   It’s a reminder that where we live influences what we do, though often in less obvious ways than this.

 

Chapter 33 recaps the story of the Exodus wanderings with a full list of the places they camped, most of which were not mentioned earlier, presumably because nothing special happened there.  But that’s the story of most of our lives – in between the moments of glory and shame, the places that we remember for better or worse, are the many days and years when life went by much as normal.  But they are all part of our life’s story, and a full account of the life of a person or group should not overlook them.

 

Then comes a detailed description of boundaries.  This I familiar language to me. Part of my work involves dealing with Church of England parish boundaries, many of which in rural areas are untouched since medieval times.  This leaves us wondering at the reasons for many quirks – one parish boundary I spotted up in the hills above Teesdale goes up and down the mountainside three times like a castle battlement, yet there are now no buildings or even walls that correspond to this line.  One can only presume it represented the land holdings of different ancestral families.  On the other hand, reading the descriptions of boundaries of new urban parishes created in Victorian times is like this Bible passage – “from the junction of High Street and Market Street, in a south-westerly directions for about 450 yards to a point on Station Road thirty yards west of the police station” (I made that one up, but that’s the kind of thing).  And boundaries do still matter, though less so in the church than in past times, except when it comes to weddings.

 

Chapter 35 includes provision for cities of refuges for murderers who could stay there safe from revenge attacks until they could receive a fair trial – although the penalty for both murder and manslaughter if witnesses could be found to prove it, was death. And finally there is provision for the descendants of Noah and her sisters (as mentioned a few days ago, these being the only women who inherited land in their own name).  Thus ends this collection of stories and laws from desert times.