Lectionary Readings this week:
Ezekiel 33: 7-11
These can all be read online using today’s Lectionary Page.
Exodus 12: The Passover Lamb
In terms of its significance, this passage is HUGE. The story of the Passover is the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt. It is the story of God’s faithfulness, it is the story of new beginnings, and it sets the scene for the whole New Testament. It’s huge.
In this passage we read about the death of the first born son, and the freedom from bondage which follows. Jesus claims this story for himself, especially in John’s Gospel. For John, Jesus is clearly the first born of God (the ‘only-begotten’ son of 3:16). The death of Jesus (“the first born of God”) brings escape from slavery (to sin) for God’s people. John makes a further Passover connection by making Jesus the ‘Lamb of God‘ and setting the Crucifixion on the day of the Passover, thus making Jesus the Lamb slain with the other Passover lambs.
Psalm 149: A Victor’s Praise Song
What was it like to hear that the war had been won? Many in our Sutton Park Circuit can recall the end of WW2, and many more the news of Victory in the Falklands Conflict of 1982.
Was the victory in each case ascribed to God? There certainly were many joyful church services in England, with church bells ringing out their victory peals. I wonder if German or Argentine Christians ascribed their defeat to God too?
God’s people emerged from their oppression under the Egyptians (see the Exodus reading) with much thanksgiving of the kind recorded in this Psalm. “God is on our side!” was their rallying cry. They felt invincible. But then, slowly, they ascribed their fortunes less to God and more to their own strength – God became sidelined and then they suffered defeat. “God has deserted us!” they cried.
Those of a more mature faith will praise God not only when victory is being celebrated but also in the very depths of despair. Indeed, in despair, faith is the only thing which can be grasped. It is the only possible expression of hope.
Extremism is dangerous – not just for its acts of terror but also for its warped sense of doctrine. I am talking not just about Islamic extremists, but also Christian extremists. Crying “God is great!” in either English or Arabic before marching out with weapons aloft is essentially suggesting that God requires murder in order to bring about peace. Really?
Walter Brueggemann, always a worthy read, offers this thought in his reflections on this Psalm:
This ready juxtaposition of praise to YHWH and exaltation of military power is a recurring liturgical-ideological practice when a nation is at war. The purpose of such a ready juxtaposition is to legitimate military action and to identify such action with the purposes of God. This temptation is a palpable one, of course, in the Old Testament, where “church and state,” “temple and monarchy,” were so closely intertwined. In a directly derivative way, the same practice reappears in the contemporary United States, where chauvinism regularly and readily identifies national purpose with divine intention. Thus, in World War II, it was “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” In more recent U.S. military adventurism in the Mideast, it is recurringly “God Bless America,” a compelling echo of Israel’s ancient and theo-military claim.Brueggemann, Walter. Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (p. 617). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Do we also tend to confuse national purpose with divine intervention? If not on a national scale, do we not tend to muddy the waters between our choices and “God’s plan for my life”? How can we explore the interface between the two with integrity?
Yet perhaps we began all this discussion on completely the wrong foot. Reading this Psalm through Christian eyes, rather than through the eyes of God’s post-Exodus people, maybe we misunderstood the very basic word ‘victory’. For surely fighting against ‘flesh and blood’ is not what we are about any more. Just read Ephesians 6. Maybe the only context for which we should be reflecting on ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ is in the context of Holy Communion, where our meal together represents the flesh (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ, the living body, the Church.
Maybe instead, the real meaning of ‘victory’ is actually ‘salvation’. Maybe, after all, the victory is indeed ours in Jesus Christ. When we re-read this Psalm with a praise song in our mouth because we are victorious over sin and death through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – then we take this Psalm to a whole new level. Even the double-edged sword of Psalm 149:6 is actually a reference to the Word of God.
To God be the glory, great things he has done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
Who yielded his life in atonement for sin,
Who opened the life-gate that all may go in:
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son;
And give him the glory—great things he has done!
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God!
And every offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives:
Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our rapture, when Jesus we see:
Frances Jane van Alstyne (Fanny Crosby) (1820–1915) Public domain text
Ezekiel 33: The Prophet Must Call For Repentance
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you” my mother used to call after us as we rushed off on yet another ill-advised scheme. Another favourite was the paradoxical “If you break a leg don’t come running to me!”
“You proceed at your own risk” warn the stark signs by the weather-worn coastal footpaths. In other words, don’t sue us. OK. We get it.
Stay safe! has become the new sign-off in emails. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is real and we have had to rely on experts to help us reduce the risk of contagion as much as practically possible. We are all better off because of the advice heeded.
In other areas I wonder if we are increasingly risk-averse. Of course we want to be safe and to keep our loved ones from unnecessary danger, but to my mind a few grazed knees and the occasional bloodied nose are better teachers of risk for children than the cushioned asphalt and soft bark in today’s playgrounds. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that men, in particular, need a certain level of risk to be stimulated – if one risk is minimised (for example the forced use of seatbelts in a car) then they will look for ways of increasing risk elsewhere (for example by driving faster). And who doesn’t love the thrill of the chase in the latest James Bond movie?
We are hopeless about calculating relative probabilities of risk anyway – we may be up in arms about the perceived risk of a new mobile phone mast near our home, while blissfully carrying on smoking or sunbathing – each carrying far higher risks than the most powerful mobile phone mast.
Can this be taken too far? Warnings are still important of course. In this passage we find Ezekiel being summoned to warn the people of God or face God’s wrath himself. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ezekiel warns the people, but it does no good. God’s people chose to ignore the warnings and so ended up taking full responsibility for what followed.
And that, my friends, is how the story of the Exile begins.
Romans 13: Love Is The Fulfilling Of The Law
Let’s get this straight. Again. Being a Christian does not mean “Keeping the 10 Commandments”. Paul had plenty to say against that sort of teaching (known as “legalism”). Being a Christian is following Jesus into fullness of life, a life he named as “The Kingdom of God” – a life of justice, joy, peace and love. This is the passage in Romans which explains why Love has effectively abolished the 10 Commandments.
Love, says Paul, is what you are supposed to be doing. It’s not some wishy-washy gooey feeling, it’s meant to be hard work. Love is patient, kind – all of that – yet it remains a conscious choice and one which we must cultivate. When we love, says Paul, that’s when we are fulfilling the Law. In fact, “Love God, Love your neighbour” is absolutely the same as your prohibitions and exhortations of the Commandments of Moses. For if you loved God, you wouldn’t set up false images or profane God’s name. If you truly loved your neighbour, you wouldn’t murder them, steal from them or sleep with them outside marriage. Love does no wrong, so love is the Law of God.
It’s as clear as day is from night, urges Paul. Live in the day, live in the light.
Wake up, live, and love.
Matthew 18: Unity Within The Church
Every sermon I’ve heard on this passage, and probably every sermon I have preached too, has started with the phrase “If another member of the church sins against you”. It struck me this week that perhaps we have been getting it wrong all the time.
You see, it’s so easy to define the church from our position. To start with the premise that we are “in” and then to go on to justify our in-ness and then define what “others” have to do in order to be counted as “in” as well. To put it bluntly, we often say, “I’m saved/redeemed/doctrinally-sound and this is what you have to do, poor you, in order that you can be too”.
The stark picture from Scripture, however, is that wherever we draw the circle around ourself and our friends, and call the circle “church”, we find Jesus not inside the circle but outside it with the “outcasts and sinners“. Let’s just get rid of the circle altogether, and remind ourselves of John Wesley’s “Four Alls”. No-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. And that, only by God’s amazing grace and mercy, even includes us.
So look at this passage again. Perhaps you’ve been attending your church for years. Now read the opening words of Jesus in this reading as though they are addressed, not to you, but to someone else. Maybe even to one of those ‘outsiders’ who has only joined the church recently. Jesus is saying to them, “Has somebody grieved your Spirit? Then speak to them and point out their fault.”
And maybe that person at fault is actually you, and it is you who are being summoned. Then, maybe, because you find it all so preposterous, they are obliged to bring others along, and eventually the whole church. If you still can’t be reconciled with them, then perhaps it is you who has to leave, not them.
Yet this passage is not about creating division but about working for unity. It is absolutely not a proof text for forcing others to change to be like us, nor even for others to force us to be like them. It is, however, a call to love. A call to forgive. A call to reconciliation.
The church that reconciles itself amongst its own members is a better beacon for God’s love than a church with any number of grand words or costly outreach programs. And there, then, gently within its midst, where the church is gathered not in the name of bruised egos but in the name of the risen Jesus, there Christ is among them.
Grace and peace,