Tag Archives: Prophets

14 December – What about Bethlehem?

Bethlehem wasn’t an impressive or important place at the time Mary and Joseph were on their way there. A thousand years earlier it had produced the greatest of kings, David, but life had been quiet there since.

Yet at around the same time as Isaiah, over 700 years before Jesus was born, another prophet, Micah, had seen that it was in Bethlehem that the king greater than David would one day be born. Perhaps if Joseph had remembered that prophecy he wouldn’t have been so sure that God would make sure they had time to get back to Nazareth before Jesus was born!

Is there anything you’re missing in the Bible that might mean you’ll have to change your plans about the future? Ask God to show you what you need to know!

 

The animations in this series are by Jon Birch, and used by permission, but please don’t download them or post them elsewhere, as the copyright doesn’t allow that. Find out more at http://proost.co.uk/altadvent.

Blogging the Bible 227 – Amos 1-4 -Justice for all

For three transgressions of Damascus… of Gaza… of Tyre… ofEdom… of the Ammonites… of Moab… Amos’ hearers must have been with him by this point, as he denounced all of their neighbours and enemies, for each calling to mind particular offences against God and humanity. It would probably be like a populist speaker railing in turn against Russia, Syria, North Korea, Brussels or Washington (depending on personal politics) and getting the crowd fired up with the declaration of anger and impending disaster.

Then the speaker turns to home – For three transgressions of Judah…of Israel…

It’s as if the speaker who’s just yelled about the wrongs of Moscow and Damascus suddenly turned to Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

This was not how the prophecy was supposed to go. Though of course anyone who’d read the other prophets might have seen it coming. God’s choice of Israel and Judah didn’t let them off his judgement, it set a higher standard for their national life, as they were called to bear witness to the LORD’s ways and promises.

Here the LORD charges Israel and Judah with their failure to listen when, time and again, he has given warning – first through Nazirites and prophets, then through the coming of the disasters that they have foretold. Now there is an even graver warning – but God has no confidence that they will listen.

What warnings and signs of God’s will have I missed? How can I be more alert to them today? I want to be open not only to his warnings but also to his leadings and encouragements!

Blogging the Bible 190 – Isaiah 36-39 –

History breaks into the pattern of hope in these chapters.

There’s an abrupt change of style and content – the poetic oracles are replaced by a prose telling of events in the latter days of King Hezekiah. It’s almost entirely a retelling of 1 Kings 18-20 – about which I wrote a few months ago!

Given that almost all scholars agree that this is the last part of the first section of Isaiah, written before the exile, it’s sad that we end up with Hezekiah’s short-term relief that disaster will not fall in his own day.

Isaiah has just been looking into the distance, seeing beyond the coming storm a calm, bright future when God restores his people – and, as I’ve said a few times, we see that completely fulfilled only centuries later in Jesus.

Hezekiah is more like many of us – faced with the consequences of his actions, showing off the treasures of his house to his enemies, he prays and is relieved that Jerusalem will not fall in his time – even though his family and nation will suffer.

The approach most of us take to problems tends to be the same. Whether it’s climate change, or declining church congregations, our motivation to make the sacrifices and changes necessary for long-term good tends to be limited if we can see that we can do nothing and get away with it for the next couple of decades.

We should hear from Isaiah, and have the courage and faith to live and act for the future of generations beyond our own, not hiding behind the cushion of a few more years of safety.

Will we follow Hezekiah or Isaiah?

Blogging the Bible 189 – Isaiah 32-35 – Highway to heaven

8 A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
9 No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 35:8-10)

Again, while Isaiah is looking for a very physical return from exile as the work of God, we can rightly see them fulfilled more completely in Jesus. After all, in Luke 7:22 Jesus himself quotes the preceding verses as the evidence that he is indeed the one who is to come –

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isa. 35:5,6)

So what is the exile from which we are to return? It’s a big question, touching on the whole idea of what we mean by ‘salvation’ – perhaps it’s best seen as our whole state of being apart from God, in fear, guilt, shame and meaninglessness.

And the return isn’t meant to be hard – the road which Isaiah sees stretching ahead is a wide and safe one, from which even the foolish won’t wander off. No-one is forced to take that road. But whenever we make it hard, or install gates and turnstiles to make sure that only the right people get through, we’ve missed something of the joy of Isaiah’s vision – and of Jesus’ fulfillment of it.

Blogging the Bible 188 – Isaiah 28-31 – Religion without faith?

God doesn’t seem to have much time for religion, except where it’s moved and inspired by faith. Then he’s ready and waiting.

There are a few points in these chapters where this theme comes through.

Keep the focus on the big picture

The first (as I read it) is in 28:13, where the prophet denounces the priests and prophets who do not understand God’s Word.

13 Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them,
“Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little;”
in order that they may go, and fall backward,
and be broken, and snared, and taken. (Isa 28:13)

I think the reference is to the taking and abusing of God’s word, taking it as if it were a list of rules or separate aphorisms, without grasping that it’s part of a much bigger whole – the grand story of God’s work with his people, without which none of the fragments can be properly understood. The tragedy is that when the priests and prophets have lost sight of the big picture, the people who rely upon them cannot see it clearly either – and so the nation moves on toward judgement.

Don’t speak without thinking and feeling

Then there’s a clearer reference to formal prayer and worship, coming from the lips without touching the heart.

13 The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
14 so I will again do
amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden. (Isa 29:13, 14)

These words stand as a warning for all of us – religion can be dangerous when it becomes a formal habit. It then tends to insulate and isolate us from the realities of life and even the truth of God. Again, this superficial religion is deadly to wisdom and understanding – because it has no reality below the top veneer, it cannot sustain thought or inform decisions. For that, and for full life, we need depth.

Let God challenge you – especially where it hurts

The last of the three passages that struck me is a bit different, and it puts the blame this time on the people, who want to tame their religion.

8 Go now, write it before them on a tablet,
and inscribe it in a book,
so that it may be for the time to come
as a witness forever.
9 For they are a rebellious people,
faithless children,
children who will not hear
the instruction of the LORD;
10 who say to the seers, “Do not see”;
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
prophesy illusions,
11 leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”

The passage goes on to chart the disastrous consequences of not listening to the uncomfortable bits of what God says.

At my ordination retreat, Bishop David Jenkins challenged us always to remember that the calling of the priest is ‘to comfort the distressed, and to distress the comfortable’.

Whenever people tell me that ‘you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ one of the things that I try to pluck up the courage to ask them is ‘who challenges you to change?’ When we try to set our own individualised rules for which bits of faith and the Bible we take seriously, we have no help to get out of our comfort zone and be changed.

But without change, we have no faith. Without change and growth, we have no life. Without God’s challenge, heard through others, we have no direction for change.

So let’s keep faith real, and let God challenge us as he comes to our rescue.

Blogging the Bible 183 – Isaiah 5-7 – Holy, Holy, holy, God with us.

‘The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’ (9:14)

It’s a very familiar passage, especially at this time of year (mid-December, in full swing of the Christingle and Nativity Play season, if you’re catching up on this blog in May). Of course, we generally quote it as it’s cited by Matthew (1:23), translating the word here given as ‘young woman’ as the more familiar ‘virgin’. Both are valid translations of the Hebrew, but most modern translations of Isaiah go for the more general ‘young woman’ – because although it’s clear that Matthew sees this prophecy as fulfilled in Jesus, there’s nothing in the text to suggest that Isaiah was looking into the distant future, or for a birth that would be miraculous in anything other than its significance.

This, incidentally, seems to me to be good evidence that Matthew (or the early church more generally) knew about Jesus’ virgin birth, and interpreted Isaiah in that light, seeing that here is the true ‘Immanuel’ – God with us indeed. That seems more likely than the idea that Matthew invented a story of virgin birth to supposedly fulfil a prophecy which Isaiah had originally given in very different circumstances and looking to the immediate future for God’s new work and presence. In other words, the link to the prophecy followed the tradition of the virgin birth, the tradition wasn’t invented to fit the prophet’s words.

It’s interesting that both in Isaiah’s view and in Jesus, God’s action comes unlooked-for. The promise of the child Immanuel is an answer to ahaz’ refusal to ask for a sign. Jesus was born unnoticed by the great and good of Jerusalem – but attended by shepherds from the edge of society and by wise men from a pagan nation. The prophet didn’t have a vision of Baby Jesus lying in a manger (with or without tinsel halos and tea-towel headdresses in attendance) but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ birth isn’t a fulfilment of his prophecy, even more deeply than he could have imagined. God’s work of rescue, of stepping into history, is who he is and what he does. He does it time after time, and he’s done it above all in Jesus. So it’s still right to take these words and see them not just in the way that Isaiah spoke them but also in the way that Matthew – inspired by the same Spirit as Isaiah, of course – understood them to be more true than ever.

It’s just as well, or we’d have to have the service of eight lessons and carols next Sunday evening. 

There’s another well-known bit in these chapters – 6:1-8, which I remember being read at my ordination. It’s a wonderful bit of perspective-setting. All of Isaiah’s words and deeds follow from this – that he has seen God in his glory. He knows that he is not worthy to have seen God, let alone to serve him. But he also knows that God has called him nevertheless. I truly believe that until we have at least glimpsed God in his holiness and majesty, and grasped our own inability to serve him as he deserves, we are not ready to serve him at all.

It is because of God’s glory, holiness and love that we worship and serve him – not because of our goodness or, for that matter, our badness. God is God. I am not. The fleeting, shadowy echoes of Isaiah’s vision that I have had keep me fixed on God – and wary of serving and worshipping anything less.

Blogging the Bible 85 – 2 Kings 1-8 – Similar name, different prophet

image

This post’s written on Aldeburgh beach, which feels like a good place to sit and write!

It has always seemed to me a poor bit of planning on God’s part to call as successor to Elijah someone called Elisha. It’s asking for confusion, really. Admittedly, I may be over-sensitive on this, having followed three successive Rectors of Wednesfield called ‘John’. I still get called John from time to time, even after six years…

The stories of Elijah and Elisha are very different, though, and I found myself getting a bit frustrated as I read these chapters. Elijah’s story was one of heroic stands for the LORD, in the setting of which his miracles take place. Elisha’s story reads at times more like a collection of demonstrations of power without the context that gives them meaning. At times they seem almost to be more to do with demonstrating the importance of the prophet than that of the the LORD of the prophets.

A theme that runs through is the absolute nature of the Word of God through the prophets. Anyone who tries to go against it, even innocently, is in for a hard (and probably brief) time.

Naaman fits in to this theme, in a way. There’s a bit of a contest of status, as Naaman expects a good show from the prophet, appropriate to his standing and the effort he has made to get there. He’s furious to be told by a servant that he just needs to wash in the Jordan seven times. But Elisha’s making the point that prophets outrank generals, and God is making the point that his word isn’t about show but about effect. He’s also making the point that if we want to be part of what God is doing, our obedience is essential.

Perhaps it’s ok to be irritated by Elisha. But I need to remember that God’s message stands even if God’s messenger is a bit of a pain.