The Apocrypha in Lent – 2 March

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

2 March. 2 Maccabees  chapters 8-11

The beginning of chapter 8 marks a division in the book, which in the Jerusalem Bible translation is headed “The Victory of Judaism”. Elsewhere in this book there are references to the “Jewish race” or “Jewish people”.  That is very significant.   The Old Testament proper known nothing of this identity but rather tells of the twelve tribes of Israel – of which Judah became dominant, separating itself from the rest of “Israel”.  But from this time (about 150 years before Jesus of Nazareth) onwards, the identity of the worshippers of the God of Abraham identified themselves by one badge as “Jews” (though the name does derive from that of Judah).

Anyway, following the Greek empire’s attacks on Jerusalem and their torturing of innocent people, Judas Maccabeus raises a mercenary army to resist them on the principle of “we’ve had enough of this – even if we die fighting it’s better than letting ourselves be subjected to persecution”.  But God, it seems, was with them, and if these accounts are to be believed, on several occasions there were apparitions of angelic horsemen fighting for them.  Their appearance both encouraged the Jews, and frightened their enemy, to the extent that the battle in each case was turned in their favour.

That tallies with the Jewish/Christian understanding of there being a “heavenly host” of angels, always around us and influencing events, nearly always unseen.  When angels become visible, it is in times of great distress or danger, as if the veil that separates their plane of existence and ours gets torn by the distress in the world so that they can intervene and be seen doing so.   Sometimes, as noted above, the mere visible presence of an angel can make all the difference; on other occasions they seem to take a more physical form and can actually affect the things of this world – according to anecdote, deflecting bullets and removing danger out of people’s way. There are still people in the world today who tell of seeing angels at times of danger. Perhaps we ought to pay more attention to them.

 

The Bible in a Year – 12 December

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

12 December. Hebrews chapters 1-6

The letter to the Hebrews is difficult to follow, since it consists of dense theological argument in the Jewish tradition, in which verses of scripture are quoted out of context in support of the writer’s argument, a practice that would be frowned on these days.  And the argument itself is difficult to follow.  Since the plan I am following covers the whole book in only three days, I can only scratch the surface of its meaning.

In the first two chapters, the focus is on angels. Angels have had a bad press at times.  Go back forty years and you would find that few people would claim to believe in them.  The “age of reason” had no time for angels, and classed them along with ghosts, fairies and UFOs as mere mythology.  But times have changed.  Spirituality is back in fashion, experience matters more than doctrine, and you will find plenty of people who claim to have experienced angels. I know at least two.

But what are angels, or rather where do they fit in a Christian worldview?  The danger is to consider angels as demi-gods and pay them too much attention.  The anonymous writer of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus was, in his earthly form, “a little lower than the angels” (2:7, quoting a psalm). But also that after his resurrection he ascended from earth, through the heavens (sky) in which he angels dwelt, to the throne of God above.  Such “up and down” imagery cannot be taken literally today – if it ever was – but as a metaphor it works, if by “up” we refer to importance.  Jesus is more important than the angels.  Why? Because as the Son of God he has more authority than angels who are mere servants of God.  And he came to earth, not to serve angels but people (2:16).

Not only that, but Jesus is also more important than Moses, the greatest of Jewish prophets and leaders (3:3).  The rest of chapters 3 and 4 concerns the concept of “rest”, which is an extension of the ides of the Jewish Shabat (sabbath). If God ‘rested’ after his work of creation, so he intends humanity to ‘rest’ after our work on earth.  That ‘rest’ might be seen in an individual sense of “rest in peace” after death.  But more constructively, it is the new heavens and earth” that Jesus promised would come at the end of time,  a new existence like an endless sabbath, where praise and worship are all that matters, and there is no toil or suffering.

Chapter 5 starts on the major theme of the book – Jesus as High Priest -and I will look at that tomorrow.

 

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 – 21 September

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

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 – 20 February

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

20 February, Numbers 21-22

There are two miracles presented here, one in each of these chapters.  In the first, people who were bitten by venomous snakes could be healed by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole.  Apparently this imagery was known throughout the ancient near east, and the Canaanites had serpent idols of similar form.  So why does God invite Moses to make what could so easily be taken as an idol, in order to bring genuine healing?  Jesus famously made a comparison between “the serpent lifted up in the wilderness” and his own crucifixion, by which he became the saviour of the world.  Perhaps the point is that the healing miracle would be dependent on the sufferer’s faith in God, rather than in the image itself, just as salvation through Jesus is always to be through faith and not “magic”.

 

The other miracle is Balaam’s ass (donkey), which sees the angel that was invisible to its rider, and turned aside three times, being beaten for what Balaam presumed was stubbornness. The donkey then speaks to its rider who does not seem at all astonished by this, and the angel (who had come to warn Balaam not to curse God’s chosen people) is then revealed.  What are we to make of all this?  It is true that some animals can detect things that humans cannot – there are many stories of dogs or cats apparently seeing ghosts, for example. Some Christians would add that animals can actually have faith in God – after all, Jesus did speak of the “birds of the air” who do not worry because they know that God will feed them. But a talking donkey?  That really is a miracle!