Until 13 September, the Narrative Lectionary does not set readings for each Sunday allowing the preacher to return to some themes or books of the bible, or to spend some time in other books and stories we don’t usually read and study together.
Later in the year, COVID-19 allowing, we will be running a Bible study on the book of Revelation. This is one that chills the hearts of some and excites others, but it isn’t one we tend to read as a congregation as it is difficult to take texts out of their context. During this time of no set readings, I have taken the opportunity to offer other texts which evoke similar responses in people – the apocryphal texts of Daniel and the dreams and visions; the minor prophets that speak of justice and power; the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the grief and joy responses of the people.
As background to these readings, I was drawn to two different verses:
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Never, ever take verses out of context so please don’t go quoting these in other places without reading around them first! However, for me they speak of the intergenerational nature of religious experiences and relationship with God. That expands out into different marginalised groups eg, Joel is speaking about all generations and genders but today we might interpret this to include anyone of a different ability, anyone from a different socio-economic background, anyone from a culturally and linguistically diverse background.
At its core, it’s about saying that God pours out God’s spirit on anyone. This sits perfectly with our readings from Corinthians where the church was wrestling with the issue that we are all given gifts by God, that they need to be respected and embraced, but that they need to be tested too to ensure the church remains on God’s path.
The theme throughout our readings from June through to early September is ‘What are our dreams for our world?’ Amazingly, I did this work way before COVID-19, but doesn’t it fit so well!
• Daniel was an interpreter and receiver of prophetic dreams – it’s believed the writer of Revelation was heavily influenced by writers like Daniel so this gives us a great foundation from which to build
• the prophets dreamed of moving back to God’s ways based upon God’s love, mercy and grace rather than human concepts of power
• Nehemiah dreamed of new beginnings – and inspired teams of people to bring about those dreams
The aim of worship is not to download knowledge into people’s heads, it’s to gather in praise and worship of God together as a whole body. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for preaching or that you won’t take away with you something you didn’t know before. Just remember the aim of worship is not to be a Bible study but to help us to listen to what God might be saying through the word, sacrament and prayers.
If you want to delve more deeply into some of these books and themes, we can always gather study groups or I can suggest books you might like to read and discuss in your own small groups.
Let’s take each book separately and I’ll introduce them with the themes
We’re looking specifically at chapters 5, 6, and 10. They are long readings so I’ve selected verses.
They are strange readings and difficult to interpret but images are used from these in the Second Testament. The take-home message here is that we need to take the entirety of the sacred texts in order to understand them and see the whole context, otherwise all we are doing is glorified proof texting. Daniel is regarded by some as part one of the Book of Revelation – more of that later in the year.
Daniel was captured as a child and taken into exile in Babylon where he spent 70 years. Similar to Joseph in Egypt, he interpreted dreams for the kings. He also had visions and dreams, messages from God – he dreamt the whole of the Babylon exile symbolised in 70 weeks; he dreamed of the 4 successive empires – Babylon, Persian, Greece and Rome as a four-headed beast. This literature feeds into the book of Revelation as the author John (and his audience) would have known these stories well. Daniel isn’t a Jewish prophet but rather regarded as a father of the faith, a man of great piety, but he is called a prophet by Matthew in his gospel.
Daniel 5 – the writing on the wall and Daniel becomes an interpreter of dreams
Daniel 6 – lion’s den story (yay!)
Daniel 10 – Daniel’s visions and dreams again
All of this links into Revelation and the imagery and symbolism which we’re studying at the end of the year – not to be taken literally!
I love the so-called minor prophets. Amos was writing around 760-755 BCE after the division of the nation into two, one of the twelve minor prophets for Jews and Christians. We explored some of this last year. He came from the Kingdom of Judah in the south and preached in the Kingdom of Israel in the north (especially Samaria and Bethel). It was a time of peace but there was a growing division between the rich and the poor, a lack of justice, plus God’s laws were generally being ignored. Amos doesn’t compromise his message no matter who he is talking to, and he doesn’t let people off the hook – don’t think a good sacrifice is going to wipe the slate clean of all your sins if you just go back to behaving the same way. Make changes in your life, forget the sacrifices.
Amos 3 – the prophet calling the people back to God, and warning of destruction if they don’t return to God
Amos 5 – it all seems dire but there is always hope – justice rolling like a river. Amos is referenced by Martin Luther King in his ‘I have a dream’ speech – “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”.
Micah is another minor prophet, writing around 722 BCE before the destruction of Jerusalem. It was a time of idol worship, ignoring God’s laws, oppression of the poor by the rich. The oppression of vulnerable people made Micah particularly angry. Micah prophesises the fall of Israel and the nation being ploughed over like a field so that nothing remained of the city of Jerusalem. He has a message of hope for all those who turn back to God and live justly, humbly and loving the one God.
Micah 4 – after the exile, God promises restoration of the Jewish people and Jerusalem using a particular image of labouring woman
Micah 7 – remembering the ancestors and God’s faithfulness
We know very little about Habakkuk. He is a Christian, Jewish and Muslim prophet who begins by questioning where God is in the midst of the injustice around him – the book is a conversation between him and God. He wants to know from God why the wicked rulers always seem to prosper and the people suffer and calls for God to do something. Be honest, how often do we ask exactly the same question when we see people destroying others in the race to the top and yet seem to ‘prosper’.
Our reading ends with acknowledgement that God is there even when there appears to be no blossom on the trees. God is still present and the prophet will still worship. Its feel is very similar to some of the psalms – God’s shoulders are broad enough for criticism and will not turn away from us even when we lash out in despair at the seeming unfairness of life.
Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 3:1-2, 16-19 – a conversation between Habakkuk and God beginning with Habakkuk accusing God and finishing with an acknowledgement of God’s faithfulness
Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king of Persia and he asked the king for help to rebuild Jerusalem. He created teams of people and worked with Ezra, the priest, and gradually rebuilt not only the physical city but also the religious laws and rites and rituals, thus redefining the Jewish people as a nation and culture. He may have been a eunuch as he is recorded being in the presence of the queen of Persia, an honour only held by the women of the court and eunuchs. His dream was to rebuild the city and he followed through with spiritual support from Ezra and practical help from the Persian king – a great team builder too as, in rebuilding Jerusalem, he rebuilt the community. What does this say for us?
There are obvious links with the book of Ezra so have a read to see the other side of the story, as it were.
Nehemiah 3:1-12 – the gathering of people to undertake the building work and creation of teams
Nehemiah 4:7-20 – they face challenges in the rebuilding but they stand together and continue the project with faith in God
Nehemiah 12:27-47 – the city walls are dedicated using the rites and rituals they have rediscovered thus dedicating themselves as community too. Even though there was joy at the rebuilding, there would have been sadness and grief as people remember what they had lost in the first place through their arrogance, grief for those who had died before seeing the rebuilding.
That’s all I’ll give you now but that takes you into August. This shows you the way the readings are following what we have shared thus far and how perhaps they speak into our very specific context of Manningham Uniting as well as this weird time of COVID-19.
I’m hoping these will encourage some interesting discussions and debate as there are no easy messages here and, as always, I don’t have all the answers. I am exploring and learning along with everyone else.