Saturday, December 04, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 7

In which the exiles come to (a) completion


Genesis 2:1-4

Then the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their array. And God completed on the seventh day the task He had done, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the task He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for on it He had ceased from all His task that He had created to do. This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.


Daniel 9:1-3, 20-23

In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus from the seed of Media, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans, in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, came to understand in the books the number of years that according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet were to fulfil the devastation of Jerusalem—seventy years. And I turned to the Master God to petition in prayer and supplication, in fasting and sackcloth and ashes…

I was still speaking and praying and confessing…when the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision before, glided down in flight, reaching me at the hour of the evening offering. And he imparted understanding and spoke to me and said, “Daniel, now have I come out to convey wisdom to you. At the beginning of your supplication the word was issued and I have come to tell you that you are beloved…”


The opening verses of Genesis 2 form a pivot and a bridge between the first origins story, focused on Jerusalem and her destruction and restoration, and a second origins story, focused on Babylon and her role in the shaping of God’s people. Each story converges on this point, at the completion of God’s task, on the seventh day or seventh decade, from opposite directions. And this cessation is hallowed, made holy, just as the task of exile is also a holy activity. It is hallowed, by the longing of God’s people for God, and of God for God’s people, coming together; and it happens in time, according to the very fabric and rhythms of the cosmos God has established.

Advent is standing on the bridge that joins heaven and earth, Jerusalem and Babylon, where the unseen is rendered visible, and what was once separated is joined together.


Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Friday, December 03, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 6


In which the exiles rejoice in a coming new order of justice and peace


Genesis 1:24-31

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind. And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of every kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.

And God created the human in his image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it, and hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and every beast that crawls upon the earth.” And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree that has fruit bearing seed, yours they will be for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and to all the fowl of the heavens and to all that crawls on the earth, which has the breath of life within it, the green plants for food.” And so it was. And God saw all that He had done, and, look, it was very good. And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.


Isaiah 65:17-19, 25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be recalled and shall not come to mind. But rejoice and exalt for all times, that I am creating, for I am about to create in Jerusalem exultation and with it rejoicing. And I will exult in Jerusalem and rejoice in My people, and no longer shall be heard within it the sound of weeping and the sound of screams.

The wolf and the lamb shall graze as one, and the lion like cattle eat hay and the serpent—dust, its food. They shall do no evil and do no harm on all My holy mountain, said the LORD.


Advent is a season of longing, as we wait for what we do not yet see: for God to come, in Jesus, and establish that reign of justice, mercy and peace.

Hold on. The kingdom of God has drawn near. A new day is coming.

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Thursday, December 02, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 5


In which the exiles exult in God’s blessing for all peoples


Genesis 1:20-23

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with the swarm of living creatures and let fowl fly over the earth across the vault of the heavens.” And God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that crawls, which the water had swarmed forth of each kind, and the winged fowl of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas and let the fowl multiply in the earth.” And it was evening and it was morning, fifth day.


Isaiah 54:1-5, 9

Sing gladly, O barren one who has not given birth, burst out in glad song, exult, who has not been in labor, for the desolate one’s children number more than the children of the one with a husband. Spread wide the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your dwelling place stretch out—do not stint. Lengthen your cords, and strengthen your tent pegs. For to the north and the south you shall burst forth, and your seed shall take hold of nations and shall settle desolate towns. Do not fear, for you shall not be shamed, and you shall not be disgraced, for you shall not be dishonored. For the shame of your youth you shall forget, and the dishonor of your widowhood you shall no longer recall. For he who takes you to bed is your Maker, the LORD of Armies is His name, and your redeemer is Israel’s Holy One.

“For as Noah’s waters is this to Me, as I vowed not to let Noah’s waters go over the earth again, so have I vowed not to be furious with you nor to rebuke you.


In biblical imagery, the fish of the sea represent the nations of the earth; the sea monsters, gods, beings we might know as angels or demons, created by God and appointed to guard over nations; the fowl who fly over the earth, messengers from God, guardian angels. Though we shall see, as this great myth unfolds, that some such beings rebel against God, here God is reestablishing an order in which even former enemies are blessed. An order within which there can be a release of blessing for God’s people, in no way restricted to God’s people.

As we hear of wars and rumours of wars and as we see the plight of displaced peoples looking for asylum—for a welcome and a place to build a new life, in which their family can flourish and by which they can contribute to the flourishing of their new neighbours—let us lift to God all those in danger, who yet hope for blessing.

May we speak out in support of angels who have been labelled demons.

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 4


In which the exiles acknowledge the leaders God raises up for the nations among whom they live, and for God’s own people


Genesis 1:14-19

And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the heavens to divide the day from the night, and they shall be signs for the fixed times and for days and years, and they shall be lights in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth.” And so it was. And God made the two great lights, the great light for dominion of day and the small light for dominion of night, and the stars. And God placed them in the vault of the heavens to light up the earth and to have dominion over day and night and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, fourth day.


Haggai 2:1-9

In the second year of Darius in the seventh month, on the twenty-first of the month, the word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet, saying, “Say, pray to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel the prefect of Judah and to Joshua son of Jehozadak the high priest and to the remnant of the people, saying, ‘Who among you remains who saw this house in its former glory? And how do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?’ And now, be strong, Zerubbabel, said the LORD, and be strong, Joshua son of Jehozadak the high priest, and be strong, all the people, said the LORD, and act, for I am with you, said the LORD of Armies. Remember this word that I sealed with you when you came out of Egypt and My spirit was standing in your midst. Do not fear. For thus said the LORD of Armies: Soon I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake the nations, and the precious things of all the nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, said the LORD of Armies. Mine is the silver and mine the gold, said the LORD of Armies. Great shall be the glory of this house, the latter more than the former, said the LORD of Armies, and in this place I will bestow peace, said the LORD of Armies.”


Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius, Cyrus. Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, Joshua. Lights to have dominion of the darkness, the exile (ordained by God, and proclaimed good) and lights to have dominion over day, the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem.

Those who declare that God is King of the Universe are also called to see God’s hand in the ascent, and the giving way, of leaders of the nations, and the Church. In our time of unprecedented climate crisis, we lift our present leaders to God asking that they may have courage to do what is right, and pray that God would raise up future leaders who will exercise their delegated dominion with integrity, trusting in God’s promises.

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 3


In which the exiles begin to dare to trust God for a return home


Genesis 1:9-13

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters He called Seas, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth grow grass, plants yielding seed of each kind and trees bearing fruit of each kind, that has its seed within it upon the earth.” And so it was. And the earth put forth grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, third day.


Amos 9:11-15

On that day I will raise up the fallen shelter of David and I will stop up its breaches and its ruins will I raise and rebuild it as in days of yore, so that they take hold of the remnant of Edom and all the nations on which My name has been called, said the LORD, Who does this. Look, days are coming, said the LORD, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes the sower of seed. And the mountains shall drip fermented juice, and all the hills shall melt. And I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild desolate towns and dwell there and plant vineyards and drink their wine. And they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them on their soil, and they shall no more be uprooted from their soil that I have given them, said the LORD your God.


In biblical imagery, trees stand for people, sometimes a person of interest, sometimes nations. Fruit stands for the culture a society produces, whether characterized by justice and mercy or by injustice and indifference. Seed stands for the ability of a given group to reproduce their values.

In my culture, we put up trees in our homes in December, and decorate them, often with baubles that tell family stories, perhaps made by our children or grandchildren or placed on the tree with their help, making memories. As you put up your tree, and while it takes room in your home, hold those people and memories before God in prayer, not forgetting those whose lives lack security this Christmas.

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Monday, November 29, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 2


In which the exiles reimagine exile as God’s constraint and shelter for them


Genesis 1:6-8

And God said, “Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.” And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was. And God called the vault Heavens, and it was evening and it was morning, second day.


Amos 9:1-6

I saw the Master stationed by the altar, and He said: Strike the capitals that the thresholds shake. I will split them on the heads of them all, and who is left of them I will slay with the sword. None of them shall be able to flee, and no survivor from them shall escape. Were they to dig down to Sheol, from there My hand would take them, and were they to ascend to the heavens, from there I would bring them down. And were they to hide on the peak of Carmel, I would search them out there and take them. And were they to take cover from My eyes on the floor of the sea, from there I would summon the Serpent and it would bite them. And should they go in captivity before their enemies, from there I will summon the sword and it would slay them. And I will put My eye on them for evil and not for good.

And the Master, LORD of Armies, Who but touches the earth and it melts and all dwellers upon it mourn, and it goes up like the Nile, and sinks like the Nile of Egypt. Who builds in the heavens His lofts and His vault upon the earth He founds. Who calls forth the waters of the sea and pours them over the earth—the LORD is His name.


In dark times, we long for hope. But when we rush, we are likely to rush to false hopes. The exiles deported to Babylon needed to make sense of their situation, and Advent asks the same of us. God has set limits on our human capacity to determine our lives, has fashioned a vault that—like all great architecture—both shelters us and draws out wonder.

In what ways have you had to accept the limits of your capacity over the past year? In what ways have you discovered this to be grace?

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 1


In which the exiles lament the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem


Genesis 1:1-5

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.


Lamentations 2:1, 2, 13

How has the Master beclouded in His wrath the daughter of Zion, has flung from the heavens to the ground the splendor of Israel, nor did He recall His footstool on the day of His wrath. The Master obliterated, had no mercy, all of Jacob’s dwellings, brought to the ground, profaned, a kingdom and its nobles.

How can I bear witness for you, what can I liken to you, O Daughter of Jerusalem? What can I compare to you and console you, O Virgin, Zion’s Daughter? For great as the sea is your breaking. Who can heal you?


Genesis opens not with a primeval planet Earth, but a cosmos centered on a devastated Jerusalem and desecrated Temple, whose God has gone with His people into exile.

Where have you known devastation in the past year? Or where have you seen it in the lives of others? From the impact of a deadly pandemic to homes destroyed by fires or floods to the cries of asylum seekers falling on the deaf ears of harden hearts, where do you long for God to speak into the chaos? And dare you see His judgement on us, in the devastation we sit in? Perhaps only then can we hope to see light and goodness.

Where have you been enabled, by, and with, God, to see the light?

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 0


Advent is the annual season of expectation, of attending to making ourselves ready for the Lord’s return, as we prepare to celebrate his first coming long ago. Each year, it has been my practice to count the days, with an Advent reflection. This year, I am going back to the very start, to contemplate what it means to declare that God is King of the Universe in the face of the upheavals of the world we live in. This was the defining question for God’s ancient people carried off into exile in Babylon—that is to say, how they wrestled with this question, and the answers they came up with, literally defined them as a people. Their answer was to shape a Great Story, a life-giving, hope-sustaining, future-imagining myth, from an oral tradition handed down to them over centuries. In their exile, and its aftermath, they wrote much of the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament, as we know it. I shall be working with Robert Alter’s translation, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Reading from the ashes


Reading Genesis 1 in a post-Brexit pandemic.

While drawing on a centuries-long oral tradition, the book of Genesis is an exilic and even post-exilic text, a work of making meaning in a context of enormous upheaval.

If Eden (chapters 2 & 3) is Babylon, Genesis 1 is centred on Jerusalem. This is not the creation of the world, but in a world that has become formless and for whom God acts to bring order out of chaos, Genesis 1 plants us firmly in the ashes of Jerusalem besieged and plundered by Nebuchadnezzar II.

Chronologically, it follows on from Jeremiah’s Lamentations over Jerusalem. In the unfolding vision of a sun and moon and stars, and the reestablishment of a flourishing plant and animal kingdom, the text actively engages with texts such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai, in which God raises up governors and high priests to give light to the people, and the restoration passages in texts such as Isaiah, Joel and Amos, which paint pictures of a new world centred on a restored Jerusalem.

What bearing might this have on how we read Genesis 1 in a UK ruled by disaster capitalists on the make, or a world where leaders make promises on tackling climate crisis they have no intention of keeping?


Faithful improvisation


In these Last Days at the tail end of the Church calendar, we are sitting with Daniel at Holy Communion. The book of Daniel concerns the experience of the civil service of Jerusalem after they were deported into exile in Babylon. It is full of big, bold, colourful episodes, such as The Writing On The Wall and Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

To help make sense of what had happened to them, and to keep hope alive for what might happen, the exiles engaged in what we might call faithful improvisation. Drawing on ancient resources to sustain their present and imagine their future into being, they wrote down stories.

So the neo-Babylonian empire is depicted as Adam, and the Medes, with whom they had made a marriage alliance and who would eventually betray them, become Eve. Babylon with its fabled gardens and mighty rivers becomes Eden. The presence of Yahweh, the god of the exiles, in their midst becomes the Tree of Life; and the presence of his people, represented by civil servants of unparalleled, godlike, insight becomes the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their hosts are prohibited from devouring the fruit of that tree, on pain of judgement; nonetheless, they do attempt to consume the fruit, in fiery furnace or lions’ enclosure. The talking dragon sidekick of the god of Babylon even makes a cameo appearance.

In this faithful improvisation, the story of Adam and Eve is reimagined as a pre-history not of humankind but of the return from exile, after the judgement of these superpowers.

How might we engage in faithful improvisation, reimagining this story from within the context of being a church community in the northeast of England who have welcomed into our midst a significant number of Christian asylum seekers from across the Middle East, largely of Persian background?

Adam stands for the regime in Iran, ruling over the ancient Persian empire.

Eve stands for the British government, for in their financing, and selling of arms, and occasional sabre-rattling, the Mother Of All Parliaments is both a support and a liability for the Iranian regime.

Eden is the beautiful land of Iran.

The Tree of Life represents God’s faithful presence to bless the Persian people through the centuries. (Did you know that the Magi who visited the infant Jesus were Persian ambassadors?)

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the Persian church, rapidly growing in the face of strong persecution.

Through this faithful improvisation, the story of Adam and Eve is reimagined, within my context, as a pre-history of the future time when my Persian sisters and brothers can return home, to live their lives openly and without fear of imprisonment, torture, or death.

Of course, this is not the only way to reimagine the Genesis pre-history. But it is the only way to read the Genesis pre-history, asking, how does this text live for us and give us life?