Friday, December 24, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 28


In which the exiles come home


Genesis 1:1, 2

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.”


Lamentations 3:22-24

The LORD’s kindness has not ended, for His mercies are not exhausted. They are renewed every morning. Great is Your faithfulness. “My portion is the LORD,” I said. therefore I yet hope for Him.


Twenty-eight days is the longest possible duration of Advent, the start of which falls between 27 November and 3 December. In 2021, there are twenty-seven days of Advent, but no twenty-eighth. This, then, is a bonus reflection.

In sitting with the text of Genesis 1-11 as a theological resource for the return from exile and restoration of Jerusalem, I have sought to hold Advent not so much as a preparation for the celebration of the first coming of Jesus, but, rather, as the anticipation of and preparation for his coming again, in power and great glory. Where is this Jesus in these texts, and in these meditations? Where Jesus always is, in the pages of the Old Testament: hidden, present by faith not sight.

As we find ourselves in days of painful constraint and great upheaval, may our Advent longing be sustained by God’s grace, until it be fulfilled in God’s mercy.


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


Advent readings 2021 :Day 27


In which the exiles return to the beginning


Genesis 11:31, 32

And Terah took Abram his son and Lot son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and he set out with them from Ur of the Chaldees toward the land of Canaan, and they came to Haran and settled there. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.


Jeremiah 33:1-9, 25, 26

And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah again while he was still shut up in the court of the guard, saying, “Thus said the LORD, Who fashions it to bring it about, the LORD is His name. Call out to Me that I may answer you and yell you great and lofty things you did not know. For thus said the LORD God of Israel concerning the houses of the city and the houses of the kings of Judah torn down before the siege-ramps and before the sword, those coming to do battle with the Chaldeans, but to fill them with human corpses whom I struck down in My wrath and in My anger as I hid My face from this city for all their evil. I am about to grant them a cure and a healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them a wealth of true peace. And I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel and rebuild them as before. And I will cleanse them of their crimes with which they offended against Me and with which they rebelled against Me. And it shall become for Me a joyous name, praise and glory, to all nations of the earth, who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble over all the good and all the peace that I do for them.

Thus said the LORD: As I have surely set out My covenant with day and night, the laws of the heavens and the earth, so will I not reject the seed of Jacob and David My servant to take rulers from his seed, from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for I will restore their fortunes and show them mercy.”


The origins stories of the returning exiles conclude with a link into the story of Abraham, drawn out from Chaldea, in what will be the original origin story of this people who will come to settle in Canaan, via a long detour into Egypt. Abraham’s story begins with  his father, and a setting out towards a vision Terah will not live to see fulfilled. Indeed, Abraham himself will not see it, for the vision God has placed in our hearts, if it truly is of God, is far bigger than our part within in.

As Advent draws to a close for another year, and prepares to give way to Christmas, we are reminded that the questions we bring to the issues we face are not met with false-comforting answers, but that our longing for God’s reign of justice and mercy to be more fully manifest is sustained once more. We are in this story for the long haul, the arc of history bending towards God’s will, done on earth as in heaven. And in this, we are not abandoned.


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


Thursday, December 23, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 26


In which the exiles lay siege to themselves


Genesis 11:1-9

And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. Therefore it is called Babel, for there the LORD made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the LORD scattered them over all the earth.


Ezekiel 4:1-3

And you, man, take you a brick and put it before you and incise on it the city of Jerusalem. And you shall lay a siege against it and build against it a siege-work and throw up a ramp against it and set up an armed camp against it and put against it battering rams all round. And you shall set your face toward it, and it shall be besieged, and you shall lay siege against it. It is a sign for the house of Israel.


Babel represents the fall of the city, Jerusalem as much as Babylon, the lifting-up and bringing down of empires. As we draw very close to the close, the returning exiles are reminded that their God is at work in the changing fortunes of the nations, that, should they reject their vocation the Master who has humbled them before may do so again. In this world, there are no everlasting kingdoms. The stories that will sustain a people are not simply stories of specialness, of being chosen, but also lessons from past failures. Bricks and mortar matter, but they count for little if they become our grand enterprise, and even less if it is to our own glory. How then, might the things we build—our homes, our churches, our workplaces, our cities with their communal meeting spaces—bring people of different tongues—different languages and cultures, different worldviews and perspectives, different faiths and doubts concerning faith—together, to discover God at work in the contradiction and mess of our lives?


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


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 25


In which the exiles are situated at the epicentre of the cosmos


Genesis 10:32

These are the clans of the sons of Noah according to their lineage in their nations. And from these the nations branched out on the earth after the Flood.


Micah 4:1-5

And it shall happen in future days that the mount of the LORD’s house shall be firm-founded at the top of the mountains and lifted over the hills. And the people shall flow to it, and many nations shall go and say: Come, let us go up to the mount of the LORD, and to the house of Jacob’s God, that He may teach us of His ways and that we may walk in His paths. For from Zion shall teaching come forth and the LORD’s word from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among many peoples and be arbiter to vast nations from far away. And they shall grind their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not raise sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. And they shall dwell each man beneath his vine and beneath his fig tree, with none to make him tremble, for the mouth of the LORD of Armies has spoken. For all the peoples shall walk each in the name of his god. But we shall walk in the name of the LORD our God forevermore.


The nations branch out from the family that have built and ridden out the Flood in the ark. And as, for the returning exiles, this speaks of them and their call to rebuild the Temple on Mount Zion, the table of nations is an ordering of the world with Jerusalem at the centre and the surrounding nations deriving wisdom for post-Flood existence from her. Indeed, in as much as they continue, albeit chastened and humbled, the empires of the Ancient Near East owe their very ongoing existence to the intercession of God’s faithful and restored people. Yet this is not a restoration and expansion of David’s empire, but of Solomon’s reputation for wisdom for living in harmony with gods and neighbours. Here, the family tree becomes an orchard, each tree—each people-group, each human community—having room to flourish, to give shelter within the shared shelter of the orchard.

We are drawing near to the end of the beginning, to the close of the origin stories that will envision the self-understanding of the new Jerusalem community in relation to the world. They are to be a beacon of hope, and instructors to all who seek wisdom and justice. They are to be generous, self-giving, undefended, imaginative. I think of a Christian community in the United States who take handed-in semi-automatic assault weapons and transform them into tools for community gardening. This is the vision. What might it look like in your context, in mine?


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


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 24


In which the exiles’ borders are secured


Genesis 10:8-12

And Cush begot Nimrod. He was the first mighty man on earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD. Therefore is it said: Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD. The start of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land, Asshur emerged, and he built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah, and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah, which is the great city.


Micah 5:2-6

And you, Bethlehem of Ephrath, the least of Judah’s clans, from you shall one come forth for Me to be ruler of Israel whose origins are from ancient times, from days of yore. Therefore shall He give them over till the time the woman in labor bears her child, and the rest of his brothers shall come back with the Israelites. And he shall stand and shepherd them by the might of the LORD, by the pride of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for then shall he be great to the ends of the earth. And thus shall be the peace: Assyria shall not enter our land nor tread in our citadels. And we shall set up against him seven shepherds and eight princes of the peoples, and they shall smash the land of Assyria with the sword and the land of Nimrod in its gateways. And they shall save us from Assyria should he enter our land and should he tread within our borders. And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples like the dew from the LORD, like gentle rain upon the grass, as he shall not place hope in man nor expectation in humankind.


After the story of Noah, of consolation from the pain of our hands’ work, we are given a table of the family of nations who descend from Noah’s sons after the Flood. The list includes both friends and enemies, just as every family has its clashes, conflicts, and alliances. These are presented as of old, but if the ark stands for the vocation of God’s people to rebuild the Temple as a light for the Gentiles, then the relationship between a restored Israel and the surrounding nations draws the boundaries of God’s saving grace: it is for all who live their lives openly before the Lord, both Jew and Gentile; and though God gives His people into the hands of mighty hunters when they turn away from Him, He will restore their place. A mother giving birth safely, and rain in a dry land, are both signs of grace and favour towards those who trust, and signs that underline the interdependency of life.

Struggle may beget strife, but that cycle can be interrupted: peace begetting peace, even if, for now, in the pain of labour, we cannot quite yet imagine a world beyond violence. Perhaps it is those places where our expectation cannot let go of aggression towards our human family, or where, like Jonah with Nineveh, we hope for the downfall of our enemies, that we most need the deliberate wait of Advent. Come, Mighty Saviour, and reign over us.


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


Monday, December 20, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 23


In which the exiles receive vindication


Genesis 9:20-23

And Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself within his tent. And Ham the father of Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a cloak and put it over both their shoulders and walked backward and covered their father’s nakedness, their faces turned backward so they did not see their father’s nakedness.


Isaiah 11:1-5

And a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, a branch shall blossom from his roots. And the spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD, his very breath in the fear of the LORD. And not by what his eyes sees shall he judge, and not by what his ears hear shall he render verdict. And he shall judge the poor in justice and render right verdict for the lowly of the land. And he shall strike the land with the rod of his mouth, with the breath from his lips put the wicked to death. And justice shall be the belt round his waist, faithfulness the belt round his loins.


Noah is a righteous man, who listens and responds to God, but nonetheless his experience of the ark is traumatising. Noah, whose name, remember, means consolation, seeks consolation in alcohol, but cannot handle his pain. Adding insult to injury, his son Ham handles him in an abusive manner—there are echoes here of the Greek god Chronos castrating his father Uranus, and the text covers the shame of anything from sexual assault to dishonouring character assassination. Noah’s other sons, Shem and Japheth, respond with sensitivity, with careful attention to their own actions, honouring their dishonoured father. They do not cover up what has been done—that is laid bare—but place a protective covering over Noah.

This twist in the tale of the story of consolation is one we need to hear, just as the exiles who were to rebuild the Temple needed to hear it. Too often, the Church, far from being a community of consolation, has been a place where people are traumatised, and where their testimony is swept under the carpet. Such wickedness aside, the Church is often, rightly, called to be a safe space that welcomes in those who have been traumatised by the world, but, sadly, fails to know how to respond in consistently honouring ways over the long haul. May we be a true consolation, consoling others as we have been consoled, and may justice and faithfulness be the watchwords that gird us for action.


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


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 22


In which the exiles see eternity in the ordinariness of life


Genesis 9:12-15

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I set between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations: My bow I have set in the clouds to be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth, and so, when I send clouds over the earth, the bow will appear in the cloud. Then I will remember My covenant, between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a Flood to destroy all flesh…”


Qohelet 3:10-14

I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of man with which to busy themselves. Everything He has done aptly in its time. Eternity, too, He has put in their heart, without man’s grasping at all what it is God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing good in it but to be merry and to partake of good things in his life. And also every man who eats and drinks and enjoys good things in all his toil—this is a gift from God. I know that what God does will be forever. One cannot add to it and one cannot take away from it. And God has acted also that they should fear Him.


It is not surprising that the festivals of the Jewish people include celebrations of God’s deliverance out of times of great trouble: Passover, recalling the exodus from Egypt; Purim, recalling Queen Esther thwarting a genocidal plot to kill part of the Jewish community that chose not to return to Jerusalem but establish a diaspora; Hanukkah, remembering God’s miraculous intervention in the events of the desecration and reconsecration of the rebuilt Temple. Rainbows in times of rain. Hope for the rainy days in our own times. If we are to see God in our daily bread and wine, as we can learn to do, we also need the feast days and festivals, the great celebrations. As we prepare for the great, twelve-day-long feast of Christmas, may we see and know God with us in the more simple fare of Advent.


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


Saturday, December 18, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 21


In which the exiles draw breath


Genesis 8:20-22

And Noah built an altar to the LORD and he took from every clean cattle and every clean fowl and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled the fragrant odor and the LORD said in His heart, “I will not again damn the soil on humankind’s score. For the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth. And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. As long as all the days of the earth—seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease.”


Qohelet 1:1-6, 14, 15

The words of Qohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath. What gain is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun. A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and to its place it glides, there it rises. It goes to the south and swings round to the north, round and round goes the wind, and on its rounds the wind returns.

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. The crooked cannot turn straight nor can the lack be made good.


The Flood that sweeps away the civilisations of the Ancient Near East—perhaps the swift rise of Alexander the Great’s empire—does not deal with the desire of humankind to capture the soil that gave birth to other peoples; but God does reaffirm the order set out in Genesis 1, an order of seasons—the waxing and waning of rulers, the times set them—established in order that the earth itself is not worn thin. The rise and fall of empires, the breath of life and the dying breath, is not for us to overthrow; attempts to control such things, to prevent men from rising or to hold on to power, are like trying to herd the wind. In all this, the vocation of God’s people is to intercede, to raise prayer to heaven: how long, O Lord? Even when the rebuilt Temple is desecrated by Alexander’s successors, it will be fought for and reconsecrated to this role. And Advent is a season of rededication, of consecrating ourselves, committing our breath as prayer for the world.

As we hear the news, which these days seems to come at us 24/7 without ever pausing for breath, rather than be discouraged, let us turn the unfolding events of humankind and the soil to prayer.


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


Friday, December 17, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 20


In which the exiles are restored for the healing of the nations


Genesis 8:8-11

And he sent out the dove to see whether the waters had abated from the surface of the ground. But the dove found no resting place for its foot and it returned to him in the ark, for the waters were over all the earth. And he reached out and took it and brought it back to him into the ark. Then he waited another seven days and again sent the dove out from the ark. And the dove came back to him at eventide and, look, a plucked olive leaf was in its bill, and Noah knew that the waters had abated from the earth.


Ezekiel 47:1-12

And he brought me back to the entrance of the house, and, look, water was coming out from under the threshold…When the man came out to the east, there was a line in his hand, and he measured out a thousand cubits and made me cross through the water, ankle-deep water. And he measured out a thousand cubits and made me cross through the water, knee-deep water, and he measured out a thousand cubits and made me cross through waist-deep water. And he measured out a thousand cubits—a stream which I could not cross for the water was surging, water to swim in, a stream that could not be crossed…When I came back, look, on the bank of the stream were very many trees on both sides…

“And all that enters there in the stream shall live…And by the stream, on its bank, on both sides every fruit-bearing tree shall spring up. Their leaf shall not wither, their fruit shall not cease. They shall yield new fruit month after month, for their water comes out of the sanctuary, and their fruit shall be for eating and their leaf for healing.”


After the Flood, the floodwaters recede, until the earth—from which the human was fashioned by God—is dry again. The ark comes to rest on the foothills of Mount Ararat, the Temple rests on Zion, raised above all other hills. From the ark, Noah receives the consoling news of the olive branch, a new beginning, a tree associated with peace and producing oil associated with joy: here is the anointing ceremony of an heir to David’s throne. And yet again, we see the Temple as the epicentre of a renewed cosmos, for, from here flows another flood, not a destructive flood of judgement but a river bringing life to the dead places; trees springing up for the healing of the nations.

Noah must send out the dove multiple times before it is time for life to spread out once more on the face of the earth. Ezekiel must wade in the river many times before it is a stream that cannot be crossed, only swum in. Don’t give up hope. As we wait with longing for the new thing God has promised, test the waters on a regular basis, and record what you observe.


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


Thursday, December 16, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 19


In which the exiles embody peace between nations


Genesis 7:13-16

That very day, Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons together with them, came into the ark, they as well as beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and each kind of crawling thing that crawls on the earth and each kind of bird, each winged thing. They came to Noah into the ark, two by two of all flesh that has the breath of life within it. And those that came in, male and female of all flesh they came, as God had commanded him, and the LORD shut him in.


Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw in a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

And it shall happen in future days that the mount of the LORD’s house shall be firm-founded at the top of the mountains and lifted over the hills. And all the nations shall flow to it and many peoples shall go, and say: Come, let us go up to the mount of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God, that He may teach us of His ways and that we may walk in His paths. For from Zion shall teaching come forth and the LORD’s word from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations and be arbiter for many peoples. And they shall grind their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not raise sword against nation nor shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, let us walk in the LORD’s light.


The Temple is to be rebuilt in the context of a Flood that will cover the face of the earth, that will sweep away empires, one after another, within the great cradle of civilisations bounded by the Zagros Mountains to the east, the Taurus Mountains to the north, and the Hejaz Mountains to the southwest. The turbulent rise and fall of the family of nations. Above all this welter and waste is the Temple in Jerusalem, symbol of hope, resting under God’s protection, a firm-founded place given for the nations where all who will come will receive instruction in peace-making.

Let us pray for the Church, called out from every people-group, sent out to every nation, that we may embrace and model the ways that make for peace, in partnership with people of peace of all faiths and none.


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


Wednesday, December 15, 2021



The wisdom of the wise, down the ages and around the world, is that there is a necessary undoing in middle age. That there is understanding, and even joy, that can only be found on the other side of suffering. Odin the All-Father must sacrifice an eye in order to perceive things more clearly. Having survived the sea, Odysseus must walk away from it. God, and love, and time, and chance, and our own bodies conspire together, first to raise us up—discovering who we are, and the gifts we possess, by which, when crafted into talent, we might contribute to the world—and then to bring us low—that, stripped of all our ego has constructed, we might be freed to discover that our truest self can be neither expanded nor diminished but simply is, known and loved.

But what of those whose youth is disrupted, by a pandemic, say, or by poor mental health, which can affect even those who have been loved as well as their parents are able? What of those whose undoing comes before they have ever known their raising up?

The closest thing I see to an answer to that question is the Song of Mary, and the Beatitudes of her son. That there is hope, and that that hope can sustain us as we wait for it to be fulfilled. But this is an even greater Mystery than the wisdom of the wise ...


Advent readings 2021 : Day 18


In which the exiles mark the Passover


Genesis 7:1-5

And the LORD said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, for it is you I have seen righteous before Me in this generation. Of every clean animal take you seven pairs, each with its mate, and of every animal that is not clean, one pair, each with its mate. Of the fowl of the heavens as well seven pairs, male and female, to keep seed alive all over the earth. For in seven days’ time I will make it rain on the earth forty days and forty nights and I will wipe out from the face of the earth all existing things that I have made.” And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.


Ezekiel 45:18, 21-24

Thus said the Master, the LORD: “In the first month, on the first of the month, you shall take an unblemished bull from the heard and purify the sanctuary.

In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall have the Passover, a festival of seven days. Flatbread shall be eaten. And the prince shall do for himself and for all the people of the land an offense-offering bull. And the seven days of the festival he shall do a burnt offering to the LORD, seven unblemished bulls and seven unblemished rams each day of the seven days and an offense-offering of a he-goat each day. And a grain offering, an ephah for each bull and an ephah for each ram he shall do, and oil, a hin for each ephah…”


Noah is not just a model for the survival of biodiversity, fitting though that may be for our own time of climate crisis. He is instructed to take more of the animals that will be at the heart of the sacrificial system at the heart of the day-to-day life of the future Temple and the annual cycle of pilgrim festivals held there.

This new ark, this Temple, that the exiles are to build is to be a house of intercession and of remembrance. A place where confession is made, and stories are told, and food is shared—actual food, for the body—and whereby, through these practices, we are sustained as a priestly people interceding for the needs of the world. What do these practices look like for you, in your life?


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


Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 17


In which the exiles take measure


Genesis 6:12-15

And God saw the earth and, look, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on the earth. And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with outrage by them, and I am now about to destroy them, with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood, with cells you shall make the ark, and caulk it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: three hundred cubits, the ark’s length; fifty cubits, its width; thirty cubits, its height…”


Ezekiel 41:1, 2, 3, 5, 13, 15, 19, 21, 22

And he brought me into the great hall and measured the pillars to be six cubits wide on each side, the width of the pillar. And the width of the entrance was ten cubits, and the supports of the entrance five cubits on each side. And he measured its length to be forty cubits and its width twenty cubits…And he came within and measured…And he measured its length…And he measured the wall of the house…And he measured the house…And he measured the length…And the palm design had a human face on one side and a lion’s face on the other, fashioned for the entire house all around…and facing the sanctum a look like the look of an altar, of wood, three cubits high and twelve cubits its length, and it had corners, and its length and its walls were of wood. And he spoke to me: “That is the table that is before the LORD.”


The ark, with its careful measurements and attentive construction, stands first for the new Temple to be built in Jerusalem, and secondarily for the boundaries of a restored homeland for the returning exiles. Noah stands for the faithful remnant who will undertake this task and experience this blessing. The Temple is to be the place of mercy within the context of judgement, and the exiles are to fashion this space within the world as it is. It begins with careful listening, careful observation, with obedience, which is to hear and to take to heart.

The world, as we know it, is always passing away, is always in need of a sanctuary, not of our own determining but springing from divine initiative and grace. Such a space is not private, but God still looks for those who have constructed such room in their lives. What disciplines have you learnt, for building a life that holds out meaningful hope in the face of the Flood?


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


Monday, December 13, 2021

Under pressure


I’m not a fan of F1—and I’m not interested in getting into a debate with those who are—but I heard a brilliant analysis of yesterday’s controversial end to this year’s championship, by David Croft, lead commentator for Sky. His view was that, under incredible pressure—not simply the pressure of the title race, but the burden of having kept the show on the road all season under pandemic conditions—race director Michael Masi made the wrong call. But, rather than vilify him, we should recognise that the burden is unacceptable; that this must not happen again, for Masi’s sake as well as for the sport; that the owners of F1, who make a lot of money from it, should provide Masi with a deputy to work alongside him. Croft also noted that Verstappen is a worthy champion, but that he should not have won in the way that he did—that was unfair on him as well as on Hamilton—and that the gracious magnanimity of Hamilton in congratulating Verstappen should silence his own critics—he, too, is a worthy champion of champions.

As I say, I am not a fan of F1. But I found Croft’s analysis incredibly important. Everyone who is working is working under a massive additional burden, under pressure to deliver business as usual in circumstances that are far from usual. At every level and in every sector, we are stretched to the very limit—sitting ducks on worn tyres, if you will—and under such conditions, extended over time, errors of judgement are inevitable. Some of which will have greater consequences than others.

We need to extend grace towards one another. Far more than we do. And the grumpier we all get, living with the pandemic, the more we need this.

We need to consider scaling down what we expect, at present—what we can deliver, and what we demand from others. We aren’t past this, or anywhere near past this.

And we need to have serious conversations about investment. In a society where the only value is money—where what is ‘good’ is profit (and wealth indicates virtue) and what is ‘evil’ is any constraint on profit (and not possessing more money than you can ever spend is seen as vice) and where all other values have been hollowed-out—we need to reconsider wellbeing in terms of the common good. What does it profit us if we grasp material riches, but forfeit our soul?


Advent readings 2021 : Day 16


In which the exiles are equipped for their heroic task


Genesis 6:4

The Nephilim were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the sons of God having come to bed with the daughters of man who bore them children: they are the heroes of yore, the men of renown.


Psalms 2:6-8

“And I—I appointed My king on Zion, My holy mountain.” Let me tell as is due to the LORD. He said to me: “You are My son. I Myself today did beget you. Ask of me, and I shall give nations as your estate, and your holdings, the ends of the earth.


The story of consolation—of Noah—does not begin with Noah but with the Nephilim. The Nephilim were demi-gods, whose fathers were fallen angels and mothers, human, heroes known by various name across classical antiquity. Yet in this context, the Nephilim represent king Solomon, forbidden son of David, the son of God in Jerusalem, and Bathsheba (wife of David’s own ‘mighty man’ Uriah the Hittite) whom he took to his bed. Solomon the Wise, who built the first Temple in Jerusalem. For the exiles, called to step up to rebuild the Temple, as Noah built the ark, this introduction is fire to their bones.

Comparison can, on occasion, be the thief of courage; but it can also inspire us, to be faithful in our day, standing on the shoulders of saints and giants. What is it that God is calling you to rebuild, that has fallen into ruin? Are there particular saints whose lives inspire you?


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


Sunday, December 12, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 15


In which the exiles are consoled


Genesis 5:28-32

And Lamech lived a hundred and eighty-two years and he begot a son. And he called his name Noah, as to say, “This one will console us from the pain of our hands’ work from the soil which the LORD cursed.” And Lamech lived after he begot Noah five hundred and ninety-five years, and he begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years. Then he died. And Noah was five hundred years old and he begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.


Jeremiah 31:14-16

Thus said the LORD: A voice in Ramah is heard, lament and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her sons She refuses to be comforted for her sons, for they are no more. Thus said the LORD: Hold back your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your labor—said the LORD—and they shall come back from the enemy’s land, and there is hope for your future—said the LORD—and the sons shall come back to their place.


Noah is a consolation. A word that brings comfort for our pain and healing to our bones. Noah’s story will form the longest narrative arc in the Origins stories. Drawing on codified memories of a flood that covered what today we know as Iraq, Noah’s ark becomes for the exiles the ark of the covenant—symbol of the LORD sojourning with them wherever they go—and, for the waves who will return from exile, imagination for the (re)building of the Temple as a place of sacrificial worship and a house of prayer for the nations.

In a time when so many of our houses of God hold such small congregations, from where does our consolation come, and, how might we nurture God’s ‘Noah’ to us?


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


Saturday, December 11, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 14


In which the exiles meet God beyond their exile


Genesis 5:21-24

And Enoch lived sixty-five years and he begot Methuselah. And Enoch walked with God after he begot Methuselah three hundred years, and he begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. And Enoch walked with God and he was no more, for God took him.


Jeremiah 31:17, 20, 21

I have surely heard Ephraim rocking with grief: You chastened me and I was chastened like an untrained calf. Bring me back, that I may come back, for You are the LORD my God.

Set yourselves markers, put up road signs for yourself, pay heed to the highway, the way where you walked, Turn back, O Virgin Israel. Turn back to these towns of yours. How long will you slip away, rebellious daughter? For the LORD has created a new thing on earth—the female goes round the male.


Genesis 5 is a genealogy, that moves the story on from Adam to Noah. It is a genealogy of the Jewish faith, and, later, the Christian faith, though those listed are not Jews, let alone Christians. It is, in other words, a path, a Way, back home. Markers on the road back from exile. And Enoch is a signpost, showing the way, calling us to walk with God, as God walked with Adam in the garden. Moreover, in his going around death, Enoch is a sign that God, the Sustainer, has created a new thing, for those who come back.

Why not come back this Advent? Now is the time. The kingdom of God has drawn close.


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


Friday, December 10, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 13


In which the exiles cry out for mercy


Genesis 4:25-26

And Adam again knew his wife and she bore a son and called his name Seth, as to say, “God has granted me other seed in place of Abel, for Cain has killed him. As for Seth, to him, too, a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. It was then that the name of the LORD was first invoked.


Job 42:7, 8

And it happened after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath has flared against you and your two companions because you have not spoken rightly of Me as did My servant Job. And now, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job, and offer a burnt offering for yourselves, and Job My servant will pray on your behalf. To him only I shall show favor, not to do a vile thing to you, for you have not spoken rightly of Me as did my servant Job.”


In place of Abel, Seth, a new seed. An exiled community brought home, in order that they might invoke the name of the LORD, rebuild the Temple as a house of prayer for all nations.

Job’s companions are companions, not enemies. And yet they bristle at the tenacity with which he insists on his place before the LORD. In the end, that place is to stand and intercede, not on Job’s own behalf but on behalf of those very companions who have not spoken rightly. Here, again, we see the relationship between the exiles, here represented by Job the righteous man from whom everything has been taken, and the surrounding nations, represented by Job’s companions. Enmity between them is absent, but empathy becomes stretched.

Advent is that renewed call to empathy towards others, that returns our heart to pray for them. For whom will you pray today?


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


Thursday, December 09, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 12


In which the exiles are called to cry out for mercy


Genesis 4:9-15

And the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? Listen! your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil. And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on the earth.” And Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear. Now that You have driven me this day from the soil and I must hide from your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.” And the LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain shall suffer sevenfold vengeance.” And the LORD set a mark upon Cain so that whoever found him would not slay him.


Job 4:7, 8, 12-21

Recall, pray: what innocent man has died, and where were the upright demolished? As I have seen, those who plough mischief, those who plant wretchedness, reap it.

And to me came a word in secret, and my ear caught a tag end of it, in musings from nighttime’s visions when slumber falls upon men. Fear called to me, and trembling, and all my limbs it gripped with fear. And a spirit passed over my face, made the hair on my flesh stand on end. It halted, its look unfamiliar, an image before my eyes, stillness, and a sound did I hear: Can a mortal be cleared before God, can a man be made pure by his Maker? Why, His servants He does not trust, His agents He charges with blame. All the more so, the clay-house dwellers, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed more quickly than moths. From morning to eve they are shattered, unawares they are lost forever. Should their life thread be broken within them, they die, and without any wisdom.


Chapter 4 introduces a recurring theme in Genesis, that of two brothers who struggle to live peaceably together—Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob—the younger being chosen by God. Here, Abel represents the line of kings, descended from the shepherd David, cut off in violence; and, by association, the blameless (or, purified, made blameless) community carried off into exile. Abel’s offering is acceptable, but this does not preclude the possibility of Cain bringing acceptable offerings. But how is a community to hold on the one hand, a particular sense of calling while acknowledging, on the other, the struggles of their ‘brother’ peoples? Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities wrestle with the same question today, as do nations navigating sovereign place within an international community.

Abel cries out for justice, but also for mercy. In response to Abel’s cry, the LORD places Cain under His protection. Abel is a community of exiles called to intercede on behalf of their masters, pleading the Master, Lord have mercy. May our Advent intercessions reflect this hope.


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


Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 11


In which the exiles are shown the court of heaven


Genesis 3:22-24

And the LORD God said, “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” And the LORD God sent him from the garden of Eden to till the soil from which he had been taken. And He drove out the human and set up east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.


Daniel 7:1, 9-12

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylonia Daniel saw a dream and the visions in his head on his couch.

I was looking, until thrones were cast down and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His garment was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool, His throne tongues of flame, its wheels burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and went out before Him. Thousands upon thousands ministered to Him, and myriad upon myriad stood before Him. The court was seated and the books were opened…As to the remaining beasts, their dominion was taken over, and an extension of life was given to them for a time and season.


Genesis 3 ends with the LORD God sitting in judgement in the court of heaven from where fiery ministers are sent to take over dominion of the garden. Babylon’s rule is to come to an end, its limits have been set. A remnant from among the exiles shall be restored. Even so, the way to the tree of life is to be guarded: to keep the surrounding nations from attempting to take it by force as they had done the fruit of the tree of knowledge, yes, but also, perhaps, to guard it for them, in the hope that one day they might find it again, transplanted from Babylon to mount Zion?

For whom do you pray, that the tree of life might be guarded for them, until they are ready?


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