Words on the Word – Sunday 8th November 2020

Year A Proper 27 (Ordinary 32) is the Third Sunday before Advent Sunday (29th November). Year B begins on Advent Sunday, so this series of ‘Words on the Word’ is shortly coming to an end. The Lectionary readings for this week are as follows:

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24

This is a fine example of a Farewell Discourse – a “Goodbye Speech”. Jesus uses a similar structure for his Farewell Discourse at the end of John’s Gospel. Many other Old Testament characters have a form of Farewell Discourse too. Notice the various components that build up from Chapter 23 (22?) onwards.

  • Joshua knows he is old and is going to die soon
  • He gathers together his people around him
  • He tells them he is going to die
  • He commends them for their work to date
  • He assures them of their share of the inheritance
  • He urges them to be strong
  • He reminds them that God is with them, and will still be with them
  • He urges them to remain loyal to God and the Law
  • He reminds them of God’s blessings to come

This pattern outlines as well much of what Jesus says in his Final Discourse speech, especially in John Chapters 13-16. It would have been a familiar structure to the Disciples.

The verses omitted in the Lectionary are largely historical details, which can of course be looked up if desired. We conclude with the death and burial of Joshua – repeated in Judges 2 for continuity – and life for God’s people in the Promised Land begins its new chapter.

Psalm 78

Did you enjoy History at school? I can’t say I was a big fan. There’s only so many times you can learn about the Romans AGAIN before the fog descends. In my day it really was names, dates and battles with no mention (that I can recall) of any global consequences or metanarrative giving us the overarching themes or the big picture. These days my history teacher friends have at their disposal such exciting resources that far more pupils get swept up in the thrill of the storylines as they weave in and out of time – and frequently repeat themselves.

I am left, therefore with only a rudimentary knowledge of British history, let alone World history and politics from the past 2000 years, and so I am still frantically trying to fill in the gaps with the help of the likes of Simon Schama or Andrew Marr.

Nothing would have been further from the truth for the people of Israel, who would have known their history going back centuries, right down to individual names, and they would have known their place in the continuum through their rigorous ancestral record-keeping. Their history was not taught through dry texts filled with black and white images of indistinct Roman coins – their history was SUNG. And as every teacher knows, if you sing it, you memorise it.

In this passage we read only the introductory verses of Psalm 78, but the whole Psalm is a History lesson set to music. Children would have delighted in showing off their memorisation skills by singing this Psalm in full, word perfect. In this way, the story of God’s involvement in the history of God’s people is recounted afresh for each new generation.

1 Thessalonians 4

“We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (verse 14) – this passage today provides an early Christian Creed in its full, succinct and memorable form. The Lection is one of the several recommended passages to be read at Christian funerals, with good reason, and it is particularly useful as a reading for Remembrance or Memorial services, especially on All Saints’ Day which has just passed. If we do not begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then we face a hopeless end. If, however, we do begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then we face an endless hope.

The words ‘rise’ and ‘caught up in the clouds’ suggest a supernatural post-mortem vertical motion (head first? feet first?) which strikes me as more comical than helpful. It may work for Hollywood movies or whimsical Christian art, but I find it all rather twee to be honest. The Greek ‘rise’ could just as well be translated as ‘wake up’ or ‘get up from sleep’, or even simply ‘stand up’ (after sitting or lying down). There’s a sense here for me of opening the eyes properly, of truly being alive, of seeing things so brilliantly now that it is as if we had been blind all along before. As for ‘caught up in the clouds’, we get a better picture of this by reading the Transfiguration narrative, where Jesus ‘caught up in the clouds’ mirrors Moses ‘caught up in the clouds’ and actually means being in the presence of God. When we dig deeper into Celtic or mystical spirituality we become more willing to accept the always-on presence of God in all things, the liminality of the heaven-earth boundary. We see an interdimensionality of God’s presence which goes far beyond our working models of up-down-left-right. You no more have to go upwards in order to be in God’s presence than you need to go upstairs in order to think.

These words must be taken for the joyous symbolism that they represent. No-one can tell us what it will be like when we die, but we do know it will far exceed our imagination.

Matthew 25

So we come to the first of the three readings from Matthew 25 as we conclude Year A. This is the story of the Bridesmaids and the Bridegroom – and the bridesmaids are presented in this parable as being either ‘wise’ or ‘foolish’. In fact this is the theme of the whole chapter – in each of the three parables the characters are divided into those who made the right choice and those who didn’t.

What is Wisdom? We are told that ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’. We have a portrait of Wisdom personified as a female in the famous Proverbs 31. Jesus calls us to be ‘wise as serpents’. Wisdom, in New Testament terms, means being constantly open to the movement of God’s Spirit as we live in this strange period we call both the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ in an eschatological sense. Ever vigilant. Ever ready.

Jesus the Bridegroom is preparing to meet his Bride the Church – a vision celebrated too in Revelation 21. Is the Church ready? Is the Church prepared for the denouement of 1 Thessalonians 4?

In this short journey leading up to Advent we are awaiting the coming of the New-Born King. It won’t be long before we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.

But will we be ready?

Grace and peace,

Stephen Froggatt

Words On The Word will finish on 22nd November.

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