Hosea 6

A friend of mine who is a salvation army officer told me a story about preaching while dealing with her son discovering he was going blind. She described the experience as her own words sounding to her like “blah blah blah”.

This is a beautiful chapter.

By the way, it’s striking how much is prophesy is poetry. Very little prose. Advertising copy counts as poetry these days I suppose, but it’s not the go-to form for press conferences. Trump, funnily enough, talks in a poetic kind of way: not factually accurate, but full of resonance and emotional truth for his supporters. He is always a salesman. And God must always “sell” his message of love to us, because we have skeptical hearts.

First section is a picture and promise of god’s love. Short term, healing, restoring, reviving. Described as a three day process, that people have said parallels Easter.

Then living in god’s presence, compared to the sun rising and seasonal rains in winter and in spring.

Beautiful. Then a section on the emptiness of Israel. It is despairing. Their love for god is like morning mist or disappearing dew compared to the constancy of the seasons in the previous passages. They fall back into the prostitution of other god’s so fast.

That is why God must use the cutting words of the prophets. Priests are likened to bandits, lying in wait to trap travelers. Key verse:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice,

    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

V6

Which leads me back to my friend, who was sufficiently spooked by the experience of preaching her hollow sermon that she stepped back from teaching for a while.

The externals are meaningless if the inside is hollow. The pandemic is exhausting my brain. And I’m still a sinner, as it turns out. But God can forgive if I stay alive to the Spirit. Stay alive.

I pray about my response, focus. Don’t obsess on information to the extent that it overwhelms my mind. Stay in the moment with the Lord and with those around me.

And lord, keep the vulnerable safe.

Ezekiel 36

“He’s got the whole world in his hands”

It’s the start of the sugar. Reading the prophets, there’s so much death and destruction, you hang out for the sweet stuff.

The land has been emptied, but this is about hope for the mountains. Hope starts with the land itself.

Disappointed pilgrims observed over the years that the mountains of Israel are no great shakes. It’s quite a harsh, stony, dusty land.

But god’s blessing will make it bloom, will return the people and have them flourish.

Rain will cleanse the land of spiritual betrayal, the idols. Rain, beautiful rain. We don’t get that any more here.

The people’s hard hearts will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Beating, living hearts.

In every sense metaphorical and literal, God’s wonderful unique creative power of life will abound.

Oh dear God, our land is not beyond your blessing, our hearts are not beyond caring.

As it dries, bakes and burns more than we’ve ever known, and we argue and blame, and build more coal mines.

Give us hearts of flesh, send sweet rain to wash us of our idols.

I wrote a song that used this passage for the chorus and Ephesians 4 for the verse.  Goodness me, I’m a try hard! Almost 15 years ago now. Not one of my best,  but the beating heart and the anticipation of the rain are there.

 

Ezekiel 27

Oblivion mocks us.

A lament for Tyre, the flourishing city destined for oblivion.

It details its sophistication. A functioning trading place, producing and distributing things of beauty. There is a magnificence to the whole system by which an economy thrives and supports whole communities. Creating places of tenderness, safety and delight.

Their mastery of the sea was the key to their brilliance. All so poignant that it would claim it all, drown it. Their magnificence serves to further emphasise the horror of their destruction.

The imprint of the divine is in our creativity, our pattern making, our ordering of the chaos. But the curse of death is on us, the chaos wins.

That’s all resonating with me in ways I can’t quite articulate.

The stress of a normal December, taking stock. While being reminded constantly of our breaking environment and our societies inability to find consensus on all sorts of facts these days.

Knowing whole towns are being destroyed by fire, which we judge each day by how thick is the pall of smoke in the direction we are looking.

Matthew 7

Swallow your pride. God’s will be done. Switch off your worry. That was the thrust of Jesus’ sermon so far.

Today’s third part of the sermon on the mount is full of warning and promise. It’s for those who have heard or started to hear, God’s truth.

Even if you only have an inkling, some fragment of it that excites your spiritual longing; ask, seek and knock until you find more. Be seeking and doing God’s will.

It will be much easier not to. Many don’t, most in fact. And since the first step is swallowing your pride, don’t expect them to admit it. You’ll encounter false prophets and false disciples.

You’ll need brilliant discernment. We are all sinners, only God can judge – work on your own sin rather than judging others for theirs.

But be aware and steer clear of the wolves in sheep’s clothing who are presenting as the answer but don’t want to do God’s will.

Look at their fruit… more than their theology? Words are easier to fake than actions I suppose. And think carefully. They hear gods truth but it’s like pearls being given to a pig.

At the end of the sermon the people are astonished at Jesus’authority in teaching, so it’s pretty clear for that context these “pig” teachers are their usual teachers. What an insult.

It ends with the wise man building on the rock, which is Jesus’ words. And Jesus words? Seek God’s will.

It’s arguably circular: our work is to build solid houses in rock, and store treasure in heaven based on seeking and doing God’s will. And what is god’s will? That god’s will be done.

But at the heart of it is our inability to be righteous before God, and how that plays out into our life. It’s about honesty before God, and becoming agents, not blockers, of God’s love.

I do feel burdened by worry caused by my own inability to trust God and act. I feel very called on to act, very unequal to task. Give me strength.

Matthew 4

From where you are, towards God.

These chapters are so jam packed.

We have Christ’s temptation, starting to preach (“repent, the kingdom is near”), calling disciples, and establishing his public program: teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick.

He starts to get fame.

The temptation setting is so weird and extreme. In the desert, starving, zooming here and there being shown visions by the devil. But the temptations are so ordinary.

They are how I’d run his ministry of global salvation.

Self care, get a good salary. You don’t need to be distracted thinking about where your next meal is coming from.

Networking. Make contacts, find influencers who will help your mission. Your people need to talk to their people, fundraising, professionalism, structure… Lobbyists, voting blocks.

Show us the power. You’re God, we’ve got to get the message out there with some concrete demonstrations. PR events.

Stability, influence, fame.

Instead he lives a small life. He networks with… err, calls with little introduction… some fishermen, just the random people where he is. He limps through on charity and community support, couch surfing, to sustain his ministry.

He gets fame as a healer as well as itinerant preacher. But he deliberately undermines it and slows it down at first, because he knows any fame without power and connections will lead to the confrontation that will have him killed. He starts away from the populated centres.

His top line message is such a short form gospel: repent, the kingdom is near.

We’ve seen so many places in the old testament where simply responding, recognising God’s voice and moving towards it, wanting to hear it, welcoming it with positivity; is all God wants. The gospel has variable theological content.

I think again of Rahab, who was of Jesus’ line, mentioned as a hero in Hebrews. Saved because she recognised God, somehow, in her brush with the kingdom, the Jewish spies. She responded by helping them.

And those disciples. Was their gospel presentation simply “follow me”? Were they the only ones called or the only ones who responded?

You may end up being Billy Graham, you may end up being Joe Blogs. That isn’t the point.

Small lives, advancing the kingdom in words and in deeds.

Ezekiel 11

Flip the script!

In this chapter the vision of the past 11 chapters all comes into focus.

Ezekiel is far from Israel, carted away by invaders from Babylon. He’s feeling deserted by God.

No. The foreign land is God’s sanctuary, he’s actually one of those who are marked as God’s child.

His vision of Jerusalem shows the idolatrous sun worshippers in the temple. They would agree that the likes of Ezekiel are the losers.

They describe themselves with an only semi-comprehensible metaphor of a cooking pot. The gist seems to be: we are where it’s at, we’re cooking, we’re the choice cuts, not the scraps who have been rejected.

They feel safe, protected within the city. But they are not.

So the vision is good for Ezekiel, bad for those still in the city. God has flipped the script in their near history, by marking the seemingly unlucky ones as in fact the first to be saved from the destruction of Jerusalem.

And in the meta revelation of his character, he’s talked about making our hearts his dwelling, turning hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Great verse! He’s not in a building, he’s in our hearts. And he’s literally showing that by destroying the temple, and blessing Ezekiel, who is seemingly remote from God, with this vision showing that God is right with him.

My emotions are regrettably out of sync with this book. This chapter is the first one with any hope. I’ve been quite happy and upbeat while reading all the doom and gloom, and now there is a ray of hope in the book I’m sad.

My bank app has a very helpful summary of money in and money out that showed me we’ve been living beyond our means. I kind of knew it was true, but seeing it laid out there in black and white was a shock. I’ve already gone broke once and it was very stressful, so it made me alarmed. Bought up a lot of ongoing inadequacies.

But I have to look at the good side: things are far from dire, I can respond.

So maybe there is some sort of connection: this vision in my bank app enables me to flip the script. I’ll pray.

Ezekiel 4

Ezekiel is relieved from talking by God until told otherwise… He just has to do, errr… One or two other things.

Street theatre time!!! Can’t be a major prophet without it!

Though this is in his house, more like an art installation. Presumably word of mouth among the Israelites would spread, and they’d all come and see this bizarre display.

There is a picture of Jerusalem drawn in clay, with model armies and ramparts laying seige to it. This mirrors the real seige of Jerusalem simultaneously occuring in Israel.

Ezekiel and the other exiles he lived with in Babylon had been taken in an earlier, minor attack. The destruction of the temple and the removal of most of the people had not occurred yet.

He’s to lay on his left side, tied with ropes, for 390 days, symbolising him bearing the sin of Israel. He faces the clay model but with an iron frying pan between him and Jerusalem, symbolising beseiging the city.

He eats only special recipe loaves cooked over burning cow dung. God wanted human dung, but Ezekiel negotiated him to cow. Symbolises the defiled food the people of Jerusalem will eat in exile.

It doesn’t mention toilet breaks, but God is merciful.

After 390 days he does another 40 to bear the sins of Judah, which is an interesting ratio. Would have thought it was tilted more the other way. I suppose Israel just lasted longer.

So this display goes on for over a year. Everyone would have know about it. Ezekiel failed to preach when God gave him the chance. It’s like God said “OK we can do this the easy way, or the hard way…” Ezekiel probably regretted his choice…

The other day I was contemplating the salvation army flag, a Burgundy with gold banner with a star and the slogan “blood and fire”. I love that. I think it was also street theatre.

William Booth had these quasi military squads parade through town in uniforms of their own design, with brass, to gain maximum attention, holding flags saying simply “blood and fire”! Surely the ambiguity was intentional…

They entered places they were completely unknown seeming like a proto-fascist Guerilla junta seeming to threaten to slaughter you and burn your house down!

And as soon as you ask “what is this blood and fire about?”, which of course many will, the conversation turns straight to Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice and God indwelling in your heart! Boom.

Powerful, blunt, loud, provocative, weird, can’t ignore. As a gospel communicator, in an organisation with such a tradition, it’s very inspiring! And totally in the spirit of scriptures such as this.

Makes me think about my church too. The stereotypical Anglican village church, now in the middle of a bustling urban suburb, very prominent siting…

Of course, I’m making it sound fun. Ezekiel’s message was painful and utterly serious. It was about the destruction of hope. But the self-advertising power of it, the scale and commitment of going for a year with it. It’s extraordinary!

Ezekiel 3

Ezekiel’s preparation for ministry is elaborate because God knows the message is hard and Ezekiel is not up to the task. The chapter is God doing everything he can to help Ezekiel to make brave choices.

The Israelite people, carted away from Israel into exile in Babylon, no doubt feel abandoned: that God wasn’t real. Or if they do still believe, his plans make no sense.

So Ezekiel coming and telling them “God is very disappointed and angry with you” is highly likely to make him a target for much of their bitterness and misery.

First he eats the scroll of God’s word he got yesterday. It tastes sweet like honey (didn’t The Psalms say the law was sweeter than honey? Hmmmm… Mind you I called it a poison pill yesterday!)

God promises him hardness to match the hardness of the people. So he has the word inside, and the armour of God outside.

The spirit lifts him and the great glorious contraption of wheels and winged creatures delivers him to the people.

Ezekiel is full of bitterness and anger… At God I’m thinking. For seven days he sits among them, deeply distressed. No message.

It’s what I would have done I think, I’m also a coward. It’s why being a writer suits me so well. Giving other people the scripts to deliver.

God takes him out of there into the desert and ratchets up the pressure with the watchman argument: if the people reject your message, it’s on them. If the people never hear your message, that’s on you.

You are simply the watchman, your only job is to warn them of danger, even if you know they’ll reject it.

It ends with a weird scene of Ezekiel being tied up in his own house, unable to leave, and God making him unable to speak.

If you won’t use your legs and tongue for my mission, God’s seems to be saying, how about you don’t use them for anything else for a while!

At this point is it were me, I would start to be persuaded. It a theme from all the major prophets, God knows being a prophet is his suckiest job. He knows a normal person will find it almost impossible.

So it’s quite a threatening chapter to read. Please God, I don’t want to be a prophet!

I’m reminded of our discussions about the best sign to put out the front of our church.

I suggested “lay down your burdens” which was a big hit. Talking about comfort in a very abstract way. It did start some conversations, engagement with our community, it must be said. I certainly intended the any engagement that occurred would lead to a less abstract message in time.

The next one is probably going to be “Jesus loves you”. Still positive, but it confronts head on that Christianity is about responding to Jesus.

If we ever take that out, we aren’t being watchmen.

Psalm 141

Tender and brutal. Who was king David? A poet and a warrior. Intensely emotional, a tough and effective mercenary. He takes us amazing places, but surely few of us can go to all of them, he’s a rare bird.

He gets that religion is about the heart. He gets that temptation draws your heart to it. You, not it, are to blame. And a rebuke and a slap for the right things are blessings from God.

Please let me recognise that one. So often when I am told off, I reflect back the hurt of the moment, the wound to my pride. Later, when I am cool enough to actually take on board the truth, so rarely do I close the loop and go and express my gratitude to the person who rebuked me.

In the flow of the psalm, this idea leads to an aside from David that those he rebuked will recognise the truth of his words once they have been thrown down from their high place and their bones scattered without a decent burial.

“You’ll wish you’d listened to me once you’re dead!” Is an impossible kind of rebuke, but one likely to startle the hearer. It sits oddly in a psalm that has been so reflective up to that point.

He returns to a more worthy tone to conclude, fixing his eyes on God, though he does still express satisfaction anticipating his enemies’ self destruction.

If Trump goes, for instance, I will be satisfied, particularly if it’s dished out with some of the pain and humiliation he visits on those around him too powerless to object. David goes there, some have suggested this might be about his relationship with king Saul. But he knows his thoughts should really be fixed on God and his own holiness.

He knows it is by the grace of God, not his doing, that He can slip by unscathed as others mess up.

We live in a distracting age, may I remember that too.

Song of Songs 6

This passage is easy on one level yet impossible on another. You have to squint I think and step back from the detail.

At the distant level three phrases went through my mind:

“Whose garden?”

“You’re the one”

“The grandeur”.

In the emotional flow of it, last chapter she feared she may have lost her beloved. Now he’s back, and they are closer than ever.

Whose garden? The vineyard was introduced as her inmost private self, and her sexuality. Now the garden is also his. There are a variety plants. It’s a place owned by both of them, their shared inmost being and sexuality.

She flips the love declaration from earlier in the book. First it was “my beloved is mine, and I am his”. Now it’s “I am my beloved’s and he is mine”.

They are deep in trust and closeness, losing track of where one stops and the other starts.

You’re the one. He describes his love for her. It overwhelms him, he has to look away she’s so beautiful. She is unique to him, forget even the King’s harem of the most gorgeous women in the kingdom, none can compare.

The grandeur. She’s not just gorgeous, she’s majestic. Reminded me of “…we could be royals” the song by Lorde (what is it about her music and this book?).

He compares his love to… the glitziest and the most spiritual cities, Tizrah and Jerusalem. To banners of troops. To the dawn, the moon, the sun and the stars.

He is transported from the garden, all a-bloom with spring to the noble chariots of the capital, her calls her a female version of Solomons name: “Shulmalite”.

It’s that wedding day feeling: you are inseparable, your partner is the best in the world, and your romance is one for the ages.

This is not a diary or a blog. It’s not documentary. It’s a poetic script, designed for some sort of performance, including parts for a chorus of friends to link the sections. It’s Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde (But not tragic).

It’s this idealised abstraction of relationships – a supercut I said earlier, a better picture of love than our actual relationships can sustain.

I do still cry at weddings, taken aback by riskyness of their promise of love before God, treasuring all the more my beautiful Kelly sitting beside me. It doesn’t have to work out as wonderful as it did for us. And still never perfect perhaps, but what richness in the discoveries together, such as I could never have imagined.

What am I saying? I don’t know… It’s a bit too much this book. So unrelenting in focus, like consuming a whole plate of Turkish delight in one sitting.

All of these wisdom books are: Ecclesiastes is too much existential angst, proverbs has too many proverbs, psalms has more than enough measures of praise and despair for a lifetime: you never finish psalms. And Job: God himself is just too much.

It’s like God said “ok lets do this, let talk life, death, love infinity, all the obsessions of your imaginations,” but because he is God, the brew is always verging on too strong too heady for us. “100 ways to blow our tiny minds”. There’s an album concept for these books!

Praise God I suppose. I bow to a stronger force. You really are the source, the richest take on all these things. You win!