God, weal and woe

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 45.6b-8, 18, 21b-end; Psalm 85.7-end; Luke 7.18b-23.

Isaiah 45.7 is, for me, particularly difficult:

‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things’ (NRSV). It is all the more stark in the AV, ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil’. The difficulty, of course, lies in the attribution to God of the creation of evil (and darkness). The Hebrew word is ra’ and it certainly can mean ‘evil’ (Psalm 23.4, ‘lo’ ‘ira’ ra’ — I will fear no evil’) but also ‘calamity’ or ‘disaster’. Such a distinction might help to absolve God of the responsibility for human moral evil but it does not appear particularly helpful in the immediate aftermath of a terrible natural disaster.

At any rate, Isaiah is not alone in his assertion. Similar ideas are found in Amos 3.6 and 4.13, and in Lamentations 3.38. It does help, I think, to remember that, for Isaiah, particular circumstances are in view. He is responding to the rise of Cyrus the Persian king who, though pagan, will engineer the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. Isaiah sees Cyrus as an instrument of God. Opposing the dualism of the religion of Persia, Isaiah asserts that all things remain under the purview of the One God. Isaiah, like the psalmist, looks not to the heavens and the earth, but to the creator of the heavens and the earth.

In the words of Karl Barth, it is not ‘that God positively willed, created and posited darkness in the same positive way as light or evil as peace, as an independent goal and event of His plan. . . [but that] . . . they are not what they are without Him, but only in opposition and therefore relation to Him.’ (Church Dogmatics III, 1:106)

Far better to believe that God is present in the darkness than to think God is confounded by it. As Nebuchadnezzar had been God’s instrument of Judgement, now Cyrus would be God’s instrument of mercy. God had not forsaken God’s people and this was good news indeed!

I shall plump for ‘tin’

I am struggling with my sermon for tomorrow. I wanted to talk about the plumb line of Amos 7. 7–8 (I will be using the lectionary texts Amos 7.7–17 and Luke 10.25–37). The problem is that I have become convinced by the argument that the Hebrew word translated ‘plumb line’ should really be rendered ‘tin’. Of course this cannot be found in any English translation. At DBC we use the NRSV which reads:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by”.

Douglas Stuart translates the same passage in his commentary on Hosea-Jonah (Word Biblical Commentary 31):

This is what (Yahweh) showed me: He was standing on a tin wall and he had some tin in his hand. Yahweh said to me, “What do you see, Amos?” I said, “Tin.” (Yahweh) said, I am going to put tin [moaning] within my people Israel, I will no longer pass him by.”

Perhaps we should use Stuart’s translation for our Old Testament reading and ditch the NRSV this week? Either way, I am plumping for ‘tin’ and hoping I can make it as memorable an image as the plumb line ever would have been. We will see!

Reading the Bible on Sat 12 December

Today’s readings are: Psalm 145.1–21; Isaiah 35.1–10; Matthew 16.1–12.

Jesus’ feeding of the four thousand may hint (through its symbolism) at an extension, through Jesus, of the covenant love of God to Gentiles as well as to Jews. Perhaps it was this universalizing tendency of Jesus’ ministry that first brought trouble from Scribes and Pharisees with whom Jesus would otherwise have had much in common. At any rate, in Mat 16.1, they ask him for a sign and Jesus refuses not only their request but the very attitude that demands signs. There was surely sign enough in the ministry that Jesus had already performed. Jesus would offer no new sign but only the sign of Jonah (see also Mat. 12.39–40). Jesus is referring here to his three day journey onto death (like Jonah’s near-death experience in the belly of the giant fish) and his resurrection. Still, the mention of Jonah (perhaps the most universalistic book of the Old Testament) connects us again with the words we read yesterday that are repeated in today’s Psalm and appear also in the Book of Jonah:

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Listen to a music version of it (combined with Psalm 103) here.

Psalm 145 is important in Judaism where it is recited daily (three times) as the Ashrei.  Practicing Jews know what most Christians don’t, that Psalm 145 is an acrostic. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (The verse that begins with ‘n’ (nun) was absent until a complete Hebrew version of the psalm was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The ‘new’ verse makes its way into the NRSV as verse 13b, ‘The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds’.)

Mention of Hebrew and of Judaism reminds me that Hanukkah is now being celebrated. You can learn about Hanukkah here. To all our Jewish friends: Happy Hanukkah!

A gracious and compassionate God

The Bible readings for today are: Psalm 86.1–17; Isaiah 33.1–22; Matthew 15.29–39.

Some Christians speak disparagingly of the Old Testament. They seem to think that God is there depicted as a vindictive tyrant or an obsessive law-giver. I concede that there are some difficult passages (as there are in the New Testament) but overall, it clearly presents God as gracious, compassionate, forgiving and loving. Psalm 86 contains one of the great statements about the nature of God. It is repeated (with variations) about eight times in the Hebrew Bible and first occurs in the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the cleft of the rock (Ex 34.6 cf. Num 14.18; Neh 9.17; Pss 103.8; 145.8; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2 ). It serves, for me, as a summary of the nature of God as depicted in the Old Testament and it is beautifully demonstrated in the person of Jesus.

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
(Psalm 86.15)

Trusting in the God of justice

The Bible Readings for today are: Psalm 62.1–12; Isaiah 31.1–9; Matthew 15.1–20.

Quite a number of the readings have had to do with power and trust. Questions regarding who or what is worthy of our trust and who or what has the power to save or deliver are never far away. Egypt, chariots and horses offer a kind of security (Isa 31) as do extortion, robbery and riches (Ps 62) but Isaiah and the Psalmist warn against resorting to them. Similarly, Jesus takes issue with those of the religious leaders of his day who pervert the requirements of the law for the sake of personal gain.

Isa 31 and Ps 62 enjoin their readers to trust entirely in God who, like a strong rock or fortress, provides true refuge. Yet, this trust in God is not an easy, risk-free option. On the contrary, the world at large often rewards the self-possessed and the ruthless. It is precisely because of this that the biblical writers must cajole, prompt and persuade their readers to put their trust in God.

It is not that God will comply with the wishes of all who trust. The Psalmist has confidence in the justice of God, ‘who repays to all according to their work’.  God can be trusted to do, not what we want but, ultimately, what is right. Waiting for God, trusting in God, then, requires abandoning the ways of evil. The ancient Eucharistic words come to mind: ‘If any are holy, let them come, if any are not, let them repent’.

Today’s readings

The lectionary readings for today are: Psalm 44.1–26; Isaiah 30.1–18; Matthew 14.1–12.

There is something in these verses about the strange powerlessness of the powerful. Although the rulers of the world may have the power to crush people, they may not always get what they want or achieve their aims.

In the time of Josiah (640–609 BCE), Egypt and its ruler seemed, to many in Israel, to offer the best hope of survival against the region’s competing imperial powers. The prophet Isaiah envisions an alternative that is already being rejected.

“In returning and rest you could be saved.
In quietness and in trust could your heroism consist.
But you are not willing!” (Isa 30.15 tr. Watts, John D W, Isaiah 1–33, Word Biblical Commentary, 1985, Word, 392.)

For Isaiah, Egypt’s is a fragile and illusory power that cannot offer true security and strength.

According to the account in Matthew 14, Herod was powerful enough to have John the Baptist executed but he was afraid of the crowd and so eager to please his wife and his dinner guests that he could not stand for what was right.

Our own circumstances may be very different from those represented by today’s readings. Still, the crises in today’s financial institutions remind us that not everything in which we put our trust is finally worthy of it. What one day seems as solid as a rock can quickly turn to sinking sand.

Advent provides the opportunity for us to reorganise our lives around faith, and to place our trust in God. This will not always prolong our lives (it didn’t for John the Baptist) but it might help us to live them more meaningfully.

As a deer longs for flowing streams

. . . so my soul longs for you, O God

The readings for today are: Psalm 42.1–11; Isaiah 28.14–29; Matthew 13.1–23.

Psalm 42 has to be read with Psalm 43. Only then do we get some sense of resolution and that after the third repetition of the refrain:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

(Psalms 42.5,11; 43.5)

The phrase translated ‘hope in God’ in the NRSV could have been translated as, ‘wait (patiently) for God’, and ‘my help’ as ‘my saviour’.  In fact, the Hebrew word behind ‘my help’ is Yeshu‘ah from which we get the name Jesus. At Advent we might relate the desperate yet hopeful waiting of the Psalmist to the mindset of the characters of the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Anna and Simeon waiting in first-century occupied Palestine for the intervention of God. We might also think of all who continue to wait for justice and peace in circumstances of distress throughout the world today. Perhaps too we can all relate to the persistent sense of disquiet that can settle on any of us and sometimes for no obvious reason.

The Psalmist tries to deal with being downcast by talking to himself (I am assuming the writer was a man). They say, of course, that this is the first sign of madness but I seem to remember Martin Lloyd Jones suggesting it was the first sign of good mental health. I side with Lloyd Jones if only because I talk to myself more often these days than I ever did before.

Still, the Psalmist’s distress is not ultimately resolved until he can ask for (and, we assume, receive) the light, truth and guidance of God. God is big enough, the psalm seems to say, to receive our railings and complaints and, in due course, to send out God’s light and truth to lead us. In the meantime it is okay to talk ourselves into talking to God, without whom the darkness is dark indeed.

First or last?

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is one of the greatest:

Mark 9.30–37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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