God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute. As a result Hosea's family life reflected the "adulterous" relationship which Israel had built with the gods of other nations. In the book of Hosea the relationship between Hosea and Gomer parallels the relationship between God and Israel. Even though Gomer runs away from Hosea and sleeps with another man, he loves her anyway and forgives her. In the same way, even though the people of Israel worshipped false gods, God continued to love them and did not abandon his covenant with them. Most of the book of Hosea is a love song from God to Israel, recounting all that he has done for them, all the blessings he has given them pleading with them to return to him and receive his forgiveness and prosper in his love.
Today’s complex character is Hosea;
God, you try me,
you test me
almost beyond enduring.
My name seems a mockery,
Yet I cannot save her to whom I was married.
Still less the nation to whom you sent me.
She is faithless
yet I am faithful.
They are faithless
yet you are faithful.
Our life together mirrors
the life of Israel
lived out in your sight, Lord
in fickleness and frailty.
Your word came to me, oh Lord
you commanded me
to take to wife a faithless women.
And I was faithful
to you, oh God
and to Gomer.
I married her
because I love you, Lord
I was faithful to her
because I loved her.
I waited for her when she ran from me
as you, Lord wait for Israel
Lord, have mercy upon me!
Lord, have mercy upon my wife!
Lord, have mercy upon my nation!
For the sake of my faithfulness
welcome us home.
I’m most well known for the night I spent in the company of lions… but there’s more to my story.
I’m a Jew in a foreign land,
One of 4 chosen by King Nebuchadnezzar to be instructed in the ways of Babylon so that I could serve in the court of the one who had besieged Jerusalem,
I excelled. I’m bright, the brightest of them all, the Lord made my mind quick and gave me great gifts; wisdom beyond my years and the ability to interpret dreams.
It’s how I got on, made a name for myself, got myself liked and respected by the King.
But it wasn’t so much me … as what God was doing through me!
Even in that foreign land, in the service of the foreign King – I still remembered where I came from and who’s I was …
I refused to eat their best food and drink their choice wine, instead having a diet of water and vegetables.
Refused to bow down to their idols
.And I refused to pray to anyone but my God – the God of Israel.
And God showed up…
He closed the lions’ mouths …
When the writing was on the wall … He gave me the words to interpret it …
And when I ate only veg and drank only water He made sure I was the best of the best …
Because I chose to honour my God.
The God who delivered my people from slavery;
The God who brought my people – His people – through the sea and the desert and into the land of Canaan;
The Lord who stayed by my side and gave me the strength and courage I needed throughout.
I am His.
I’m Daniel, sharer of the Lion’s den, vegetarian, wordsmith, an interpreter of visions and a dreamer of dreams …
You could say I’m a complex character….
You are my Lord and King
You have placed your call within me,
You have marked me out as yours,
And you’ve put me here …
In a foreign land, where I serve an earthly government,
But you have written your word upon my heart.
Inspire me with your breath …
So that I have strength enough to live in tune with the vision of that other kingdom – Your kingdom –
Fill me with courage …
So that I may march to the rhythm of your drum rather than bowing to the idols of this alien culture;
And give me faith …
To hold on,
To play my part in bringing the vision of your almighty and eternal Kingdom to fruition
You know that person who is just a little ‘full on’? Perhaps you casually mention that the stationery cupboard is a bit of a mess and the next thing you know they have created a spreadsheet, a flow chart, and a 3D model explaining why staples and staplers should be kept on different shelves and a list of disciplinary measures for people who don’t refill the printer ink. They’re not wrong - and the 3D model proves it - but it’s just a bit… intense.
Everybody’s been stepping round ‘Cupboard-gate’ for weeks. We all know it’s a mess but it’s a minefield - we can’t just talk about it. Sure we can moan, but come on Zeph, cut as a break will you?
The opening salvo of the book of Zephaniah is bleak, and darkly thorough… full of details and stark imagery, including references to ‘dung’ and ‘entrails’. I think it’s fair to say Zephaniah would have come across as ‘a bit intense’. In a book only 3 chapters long, he spends 2 and a half of them on the offensive tackling judgement and punishment - ending with just 11 verses about restoration.
He may not have been the easiest person to hang around with. “Shall we have leavened or unleavened bread tonight Zeph?”
“You speak of bread when this shameful nation is….”
“Fine, fine, I’ll just do unleavened, it’s quicker.”
But Zephaniah had a difficult message to deliver in difficult times. You can’t accuse him of taking the easy route, telling people what they want to hear and playing to the gallery. He isn’t using spin, post-truth or alternative facts.
In an age of unstable populism, it’s refreshing to consider Zephaniah who is certainly not looking to win any popularity contests. He is someone who sees thorny issues (even more controversial than the absolute midden of a stationery cupboard) like infidelity, idolatry and injustice and gets stuck in with tenacity. He calls a spade a spade and dung - dung.
He knows his dung.
As we remember Zephaniah let’s remember all those who take up unpopular, unglamorous causes and work tirelessly, telling people what they don’t want to hear, but quite possibly need to.
Help me see truth,
When Isaiah responded to God’s question “Who will I send and who will go for me?” by saying “Here am I, send me?” I’m pretty sure he had no idea that one day God was going to ask him to take his clothes and his shoes off and wander around in public, like that, for three whole years!
In fact, I’m not sure many would sign up as followers of God’s if that was ever to appear in the job description!
Isaiah is not however, the Biblical equivalent of the naked rambler. There was a reason he was asked to do what he was asked to do.
It was all a question of trust.
God’s people were looking to be rescued and they were hoping the neighbours would help. Isaiah could have launched into sermon mode and told the people that relying on others, especially other nations, was not the answer. God was the one they should trust. But instead of just telling them that, God asked Isaiah to show the people how foolish they were being – by wandering around naked.
I wonder if God was to ask me to do anything as wacky, would I be willing to do it?
And what does this particular episode say about Isaiah? To me, it screams from the rooftops that he was one truly remarkable man who really did put God first in his life. Before family, friends, even his own comfort and reputation.
But to be honest I hope it’s something God never asks of me!
You call us to work with you in spreading the good news
To live it
And show it
To talk of it
And embody it.
Where our actions tell a different story
Please forgive us
And implant in us the desire to want to trust you
Wherever you take us
Whatever you ask of us.
Give us the courage on our faith journey
to keep saying:
Here am I Lord, send me.
It is said that God works in mysterious ways but Jonah has a problem with God working in predictable ways.
God asks his prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to turn from their wicked ways or they will be overthrown. Jonah instead turns tail and flees in the opposite direction. He runs, sails, gets himself thrown overboard, swallowed by a big fish, forced into contemplation, spewed back up and eventually ends up back where he started: going to Nineveh like God asked him to.
Does this sound like an elaborate tantrum to anyone else?
It even has a ‘time out’ although the naughty step replacement leaves something to be desired.
Jonah may be a man and a prophet but he is acting like a toddler. It may be a little more extreme than ‘please put your shoes on,’ but God lives up to his role as Father and allows Jonah to throw a strop, see the error of his ways, come back and do the task he was asked to do.
Like many a tantrum over the millennia, Jonah’s comes from a place of not-yet-understanding. Jonah already knows God will not hurt the people of Nineveh if he can help it and sees only his embarrassment at the hands of God: that he will have to make a prophesy that won’t come true.
Later God will help Jonah to understand but for now the task needs doing and Jonah’s responsibly in Ninevah is not, as he might think, to be the bringer of punishment, but to be a catalyst for change. Jonah’s role is to warn, and to hope that the warning is enough, to help the city get back on track.
God help me to know my role in your plans.
I cannot see through your eyes,
I cannot understand all of your ways,
I do not possess the knowledge that you do.
Guide my feet and help me to trust you
with faith that one day I might understand.
We should not think that prophets only exist in the Bible. God speaks through ordinary people to bring about transformation in societies. Amos was such a person. He was not a professional theologian. He was a shepherd and a fig farmer. You could say he didn’t give a fig for those in power. The wealth and prosperity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had brought with it trade deals that saw the synchronisation of the Jewish religion with the belief systems of the surrounding Kingdoms. He finds himself speaking out against the corruption and social injustice in a nation where the rich become more prosperous off the backs of the poor.
He is denounced by Amaziah the chief priest and deported from the Kingdom. Amos is a complex character, he is seen as meddling in politics and ethics that belong to another jurisdiction. Amos however believes that the whole world is responsible to God and that injustice has to be opposed where ever it is found. Instead of keeping quiet he was one of the first prophets to begin to write down his prophecies and reflections hoping that his words would bring about a reformation in society.
Amos’ influence continues to this day. Martin Luther King’s speech I Have a Dream, quotes the Book of Amos; We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. It is still this message of social justice that continues to inspire people from all nations to believe that a day of justice and equity will one day be achieved for all.
Almighty redeemer and protector
This is your world
You are in control
You direct the lives of all your people
All are equal in your eyes
All nations will be treated justly
You judge all without discrimination
You demand justice and equity for the poor
You call all people to act with integrity and mercy
You do not require great sacrifices of wealth and power
You ask for simple obedience
You despise those who speak of justice but act corruptly
Purify our hearts Oh God by your Spirit
that we may cry allowed for justice to the nations.
May we proclaim you are the God of all the nations
There is none like you.
Samuel, a child living at the temple away from his family, hears a voice in the night and runs to his old mentor and father figure Eli. It takes several repetitions and sleepy grumblings for Eli to realise Samuel is being called by God. Samuel listens as God delivers hard truths for Eli and repeats them to the old man faithfully, and without moderation, in the morning.
The young boy who didn’t recognise God’s voice has grown to be a prophet and is given power under difficult circumstances. Eli has died, the nation of Israel is under attack, the Ark of the Covenant is stolen, and the people long for guidance. Samuel quickly becomes Judge and leader to Israel.
As he gets older Samuel increasingly feels ignored, rejected and hard done by. We have all felt powerless and sidelined at different points in our lives but for Samuel this goes twofold: the people ask him for a king to lead them and when he appoints this king - he ignores Samuel too.
As with many people who are ending one stage of their working life, the transition from a powerful position to an advisory one is hard and can bring up a lot of anger. Letting the younger generation with their new ideas come and make mistakes of their own can be infuriating but as Samuel learns, with some nudges from God, it is the way the world has to work. With new ideas and mistakes come new opportunities for change and progress.
But Samuel isn’t done yet and still has a vital part to play. His early training listening to God’s voice comes in handy. Young David’s ascension to the newly created throne is due to Samuel’s ear for God’s will and his uneasiness with the king he first anointed. He finds David, anoints him and even helps to hide him from murderous King Saul.
Samuel is an example of learning to let go and give guidance but also an example of keeping alert and not giving up. He learns in his age and wisdom to do both.
Father you gave me the gift of your voice
Now give me the gift of your understanding and patience.
Help me to see my part in the journey not with pride but with reverence,
to know when to offer guidance and when to watch and wait,
when to intervene and when to be surprised.
You have given everyone your spirit to flourish with,
may we all in our own time be your power for good in the world.
The story of Noah is complex and colourful, comical and courageous. It moves from redemption to drunkenness to implied sexual abuse to blessings and curses. It relates the exploits of humanity in a time that can only be described as pre-historic. A time described in Genesis 6 where humans live for centuries, where the so called sons of God marry the daughters of men. A time beyond our understanding where it would appear giants roam the earth.
It is in this strange mysterious world we encounter the familiar issues of injustice and hypocrisy, which still contaminate our sophisticated world of science, religion and politics.
The story of Noah seeks to point to a creator God who engages with his creation, through personal relationships, longing to redeem and renew humanity. It is a story of hope, symbolised in a rainbow and the redemption of the earth through water and the technology of the Ark. There is the memorable phrase found in Genesis 6.8 which sums up the gospel message woven through the Bible ‘Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”.
It is through the re-telling of the stories of these complex characters that we discover a more honest assessment of the people God continues to use to bring about transformation in his world.
When you call me to build an Ark
Give me strength to obey
When you shut a door
Give me the faith to feel secure
When I travel with uneasy companions
Give me the courage to trust
When the storm never seems to subside
Give me the tenacity to hold on
When the sun begins to shine
Give me the patience to wait
When the Ark has come to rest
Give me the vision to step out into a place
And start again
The society was overly optimistic, but it was all crashing down. 1914 proved the notion of inevitable progress, which had been a hallmark of Western thought in the 19th century, was false. One reaction to this reality began at a Zurich café in 1916. The Dada movement was critical of capitalist societies, seeing those values as leading to war and stifling materialism. One vital expression of the Dadaists was performance art. Like that of Russian artist Oleg Kulik, who will live as a naked, barking dog in a museum for days at a time.
There was another society that was overly optimistic, but it soon would come crashing down. It was ancient Judah in the years before 587 BCE. The leaders of Judah believed in their invincibility because they had, within Jerusalem, “the temple of the Lord.” Jeremiah, whose action might have seemed a bit like a Dadaist, had he lived 2500 year later, mocked their optimism: “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” Ha! (Jeremiah 7:4) And Jeremiah got into the performance art shtick. Like wearing an undergarment without washing it, then burying it, and then pulling it out to find that it was “Good for nothing.” Or refusing to marry, as a sign of the imminent doom for Judah. Or wearing an oxen yoke, as a sign of the coming enslavement to Babylon. His actions led the leaders of Judah to declare him a traitor, and they left him to die in the muck at the bottom of a cistern.
But Jeremiah did not share the nihilism of the 20th century Dada movement. The impending doom was not merely because Judean society was rotten at the core, but because the leadership of Judah had failed to enact the justice (mishphat) demanded by God and failed live by the rule of kindness and mercy (hesed). Furthermore, Jeremiah was not a performance artist without hope. For when the impending fall of Jerusalem eventually becomes obvious, Jeremiah goes and buys a field, as a sign that the Babylonian occupation would not last forever, and life could return to normal.
We are living in a time when Western culture has some rot within. Populist leaders preach false optimism about greatness. Rampant addiction testifies to deeply ingrained nihilism. The key, Jeremiah would tell us, is to not forget the requirements that God has set forth to enact justice and live kindness. In justice and kindness, not in walls of exclusion or punishing tariffs, there is hope.
Can we do our own performance art and live out justice and kindness as a demonstration in a weary world of what life could be?
Our shared guilt is great, O God. Our wounds are grievous and seem incurable.
Help us to find hope in your righteous judgment.
Restore our health. Heal our wounds. Please God. Amen.
Today’s complex character is Deborah; prophet, leader, warrior, woman! The biblical narrative tells us that Deborah was a prophet but goes on to say that she was the wife of Lappidoth, yet all we know of Lappidoth is that he was the husband of Deborah. However Deborah was the one who was leading Israel at that time and who engineered the revolt against King Jabin of Canaan under whose rule the Israelites had been oppressed for 20 years. Led by the Lord she commanded Barak to muster 10,000 troops to march against Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army. Barak refused to go unless Deborah went with him. She prophesied that therefore the victory would be given to a woman. And so she went with the army and the Lord delivered the army of Sisera into her hands; it was completely destroyed. Sisera escaped and fled to the tent of Jael. He begged her to hide him and she led him into her tent and covered him with a blanket. While he slept, utterly exhausted, Jael drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him. Thus the military victory was achieved by two women and there was peace in Israel for 40 years.
Of no account am I,
a woman in a land of men.
I may be Prophet,
but still I am a woman
known by the name of the man
to whom I am wed.
Yet God has given me the victory
and into my hands he delivered the enemy.
Into my hands
and the hands of my sister Jael,
and together we triumphed!
God spoke to me!
He put his words in my mouth,
and brought them forth with power
to set his people free.
In God’s sight
I am Prophet
In God’s plan
I am Leader
In God’s gift
I am Warrior
I am Woman
I am Deborah
I am Judge.
They shall sing my song through the ages,
and the age of Deborah
is the age of peace.
You’re looking for someone to take a lead and inspire a whole nation to rediscover their trust in God. A bit of personality wouldn’t go amiss. A charismatic wordsmith would be good - with the courage to let God call the shots.
What you land up with is a wee guy who continually seems to question God and to test him and who, to be blunt, is not exactly enthusiastic in his response to God. “Politely trying” would be a good way to put it.
An angel comes to our unlikely hero and says, “God is with you”. Gideon says, “Pardon me but...” and basically says to the angel, you must be joking! “If God is with me, why am I and all his people living in fear?” he asks.
The angel breaks sweat but keeps going and tries again. “God has chosen you to turn around the fortunes of your people…” and again, Gideon politely interrupts the angel with another “Pardon me but...” “Pardon me but I’m from the weakest tribe of a Israel” Gideon says, “and I’m on the bottom rung of that family ladder....”
It might have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall when the angel reported back to God – “he seems, Lord, a bit negative...”
Before the angel of the Lord can say anything more to him Gideon puts his hand up. “Wait here,” he tells God’s angel, “till I get something to offer you” and off the bold man goes to do some killing, cooking and sauce-making with no particular sense of hurry. God is happy however with the result and the conversation, at last, continues.
Only for Gideon to interrupt again.
This time Gideon wants God to pass a couple of tests – the first is to make the ground around a sheepskin left out overnight, frosty but not the sheepskin and the next night Gideon wants the opposite to happen. He wants the ground to be dry and the sheepskin wet!
It is only after all that, that Gideon begins to do what God wants. Old habits however, die hard and all the way through his story, Gideon continues to poke sticks in the wheels of God’s ideas, slowing things down before agreeing to do what God wants to do through him.
And yet God used Gideon to bring his people back to him.
You called me, so you have to put up with my foibles -
I can’t help being slow to commit,
It’s just the way I am – the way you made me.
I need to get my head round things and only then can I act.
But thank you.
Thank you for being so patient and understanding.
Thank you for waiting for me and for answering all my questions.
Above all thank you for using even me
To do mighty things.
If you can work with me Lord God,
you can work with anyone.
Bless you. Amen
Wide shot of Jericho - the city that never sleeps taking a nap - tense music builds. Two spies are running over rooftops, ducking into the shadows. They scale down a wall and slip into a small unassuming building. Rahab is standing there in front of a roaring fire that crackles and spits dangerously. Close up of her enigmatic face, she’s all mystery, not giving anything away.
Cut to: soldiers rushing through the streets, battering on doors, causing a commotion. Then we see Rahab opening her door and ushering the soldiers in…
But the room is empty.
‘Sure, I saw the guys, but they didn’t exactly stick around. What you doing standing here talking to me officer? If you run you can catch them, they can’t have gone far…’ As she speaks we see a close up of the spies under all the flax on the roof trying to stay as still as possible. The soldiers back out making their apologies and Rahab looks up at the roof, hoping she’s made the right choice, hoping the gamble pays off.
Rahab negotiates with the spies, who are scouting the land before the invasion, to save her and her family in exchange for not handing them over to the authorities. She is impressed by what she’s heard of about these people and their God. She’s a shrewd operator - judging the mood, and playing the cards she is dealt - but she’s an unconventional hero, lying and acting out of self-preservation.
There are parallels between Rahab and the parable Jesus tells about ‘the unjust steward’ (see Luke 16.1-8). A man who has just been fired by his rich boss spends his notice period cutting favourable deals with all of the clients so that when he is back on the job market they will want to hire him. When the boss finds out - he isn’t mad - he’s delighted that his lazy steward is doing something. The parable ends with the line: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”
Rahab and the unjust steward are puzzles. They act in unconventional, unexpected ways, thinking on their feet and improvising in the face of political and economical turmoil. Both suggest that rather than just removing yourself from the world - it is important to engage. As Christians we shouldn’t just be boring and predictable but we should be alive to what God is doing in the world and be ready to act creatively under pressure.
Be my compass,
I was amazed in 2008, how many Americans thought the junior senator from Illinois had a thoroughly Islamic name. Yet here it is in the Hebrew scripture as a militia leader during the time of a female judge of Israel. The judges were charismatic leaders who emerged when there was a national need, for the tribes of Israel had no continuous government: a situation that modern anarchists might idealize.
No, the Barak for today’s complex character review is not the recent president.
Yet, how interesting that both Baraks, the one of our era and the one of the 12th century BCE in ancient Israel, would have no problem with a woman in leadership. Neither would have called a woman who aspired to such a role “that nasty woman.” Today, the rise of populism and nativism on both sides of the Atlantic are seen by many who are concerned about the status of women as an assault on the gains for women’s rights over the past half-century in most western democracies.
In the passage from Judges, Deborah recruits the military aid of Barak, assuring him that the enemy Canaanite general, Sisera, would be delivered by God “into the hands of a woman.” One might think, and perhaps Barak did think, that Deborah was referring to herself. Not so! The story unfolds with clandestine subterfuge. The end of General Sisera would come when he accepts the apparent hospitality of Jael, wife of Heber, who gave him some nice warm milk to relax him, covered him with a rug, and calmly drove a tent stake into his brain. He was beyond the relief of aspirin.
That may seem ghastly to modern sensibilities, but I am reminded of the subterfuge of the Hebrew midwives in the Exodus story who refuse to obey the orders of Pharaoh to kill the baby boys of the Hebrew slaves. Sometimes injustice must be met with severe lawlessness, especially when the legal power is enforcing evil, like South Africa’s apartheid or America’s Jim Crow laws. The biblical Barak celebrates in song the grisly subterfuge of Jael. The modern Barak has broken with tradition and celebrated the protests against the threat of the new populist president against women and refugees.
Where will we fit into these unfolding events of the 21st century?
I’m celebrating, Lord God, the empowerment of women like Deborah,
who has arisen in Israel. And the deed of that tent-dwelling Jael,
who shattered the threat of Sisera with a peg.
Help me to know what really needs doing,
That peace may dwell with us for forty – or more – years. Amen.
David: A shepherd yet a giant killer. A shepherd but a mighty king. A musician and poet yet a soldier. A king yet a murderer. A married man but, an adulterer. A friend of God, yet a liar.
An ancestor of Jesus Christ. A man described by God as “a man who will obey”.
What do you say he is, saint, sinner, or?
David is anointed King: ‘The Lord said to Samuel, “Now take a horn of olive oil and go to Bethlehem and find a man named Jesse, for I have selected one of his sons to be the new King”.
Jesse’s youngest son was tending the sheep, Samuel asked that Jesse send for him.
‘Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed David in the presence of his brothers and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came on David in power.” (NIV 1 Samuel 16: 2,13)
David is described as one of the greatest characters in the Old Testament. He is remembered and respected for his Godliness but at the same time the Bible makes no effort to hide David’s shortcomings, indeed they were part of who David was. He played out the journey of life with zest, getting it wrong so often but was always quick to ask God’s forgiveness. David had an unchangeable belief in the faithful and forgiving nature of God and never took God’s forgiveness lightly or his blessing for granted.
Perhaps that’s why the Psalms David wrote are so true to the journey of life, so full of the joys and sorrows trials and triumphs which any one of us can experience at any time. David, saint and sinner but most importantly God’s anointed! “A man who will obey”
Lord, in the fullness of joy may we give thanks.
In our thankfulness, may we open our hearts to receive you.
As we receive you hold us gently in your care so that when things are hard we’ll still know your presence.
Like David may we always know that you are indeed our God and Father.
Whether you hear those words as an instruction or an invitation will tell you a lot abut your attitude to God. You can hear them as an instruction, a warning that the ground that God inhabits is so holy that he wanted nothing on Moses' sandals to defile it. That is probably what the author of the story understood the words to mean.
But to me they stand more as an invitation. Take your sandals off, feel the ground beneath your feet. Let your toes curl in the sand. Ground yourself in the holiness of this place. The God Immanuel, the God with us, is not defiled by contact with us. We are sanctified by contact with him.
Of all our complex characters few came to God with a more complex past than Moses. Few were given more to do than Moses. To do it, he had to stand on the holy ground.
Take off your sandals because you are standing on holy ground.
The voice called me to the burning bush
And bade me come no closer
This is holy ground the voice told me
Take off your sandals
And I felt the holiness of this place.
The voice called me from my fugitive status
To a higher purpose.
The voice called me from stammering apology
To call to the King, "Let my people go."
How can I be the one who is chosen
"Take off your sandals"
The voice called me from hothead
Red handed murderer
From law breaker to law giver
What was I to tell them
When they ask who you are
You say to me "I am "
It means nothing
I take off my sandals
And I felt the holiness for myself.
in desert places
On barren mountain top
Let me take off my sandals
And stand on holy ground.
In the Old Testament we see 3 chapters in the life of Miriam.
Chapter 1: When Moses’s mum is fearing for his life she sends him in a basket in the reeds to float away to safety. It is a poetic act of desperation from a woman driven to it by an appalling, vindictive regime. It’s down to Moses’s sister to be levelheaded and practical. When much of the world is forced into becoming refugees, trying to hold fractured lives and families together - how many young women have had to become wise before their time and shoulder so much? Miriam, followed her brother down the river and saw where he ended up, and who found him, and came up with a plan to offer her mother as a nurse for the child, saving his life and restoring some unity to the family (see Exodus 2: 1-10).
We should also remember Shiphrah and Puah the similarly quick thinking midwives. When they were instructed by the Egyptian authorities to kill all newborn Hebrew boys they concocted a story about Hebrew women giving birth so vigorously that they were being born before they could get to them! One can imagine the flummoxed bureaucrat not knowing how to deal with having a conversation about ins and outs of all of that and waving them off to stem any more discussion of fluids and processes… (see Exodus 1: 8-22).
Chapter 2: In what I call ‘The Red Sea Sessions’ Miriam sings a song of triumph. Here she is riding high with her brother - who is helping to lead restoration and freedom for all her people (see Exodus 15: 20-21).
Chapter 3: We catch up with a resentful Miriam, suspicious of Moses’s new wife. If Moses and Miriam and cousin Aaron are charismatic, precocious youngsters who go on to sing songs and become heroes of their culture we can draw parallels with the disintegration of the Beatles, The Beachboys, Fleetwood Mac, The Jackson 5, The Libertines, One Direction… The fallouts, the acrimony, the recriminations.
What Miriam gives us - in just a few verses - is a brilliantly complex character. Her’s is not a simple tale of rags to riches, or of romantic adventure, or of redemption. God uses her and yet she still has hangups and issues. Her emotional struggle comes as a twist later in the tale, not as something she has to get out of the way before she can do what she needs to do. She’s a real, flawed person, and God works through her. There’s hope for all of us whether we be refugees, pop stars or part of an estranged family.
Thanks for weaving me into your story
even if I go off on my own subplot sometimes,
you give me character
and I want to read on
Samson, well you’ve all heard of me, a man of privilege, great strength, dedicated to serve God, and save Israel, and of course not forgetting my 20 years as a Judge and ruler. Excellent CV, all things considered, so I hope you’re really impressed!
I’m known for my feats of strength, and especially my long hair, which must never be cut, my hair is the secret of my strength, or is it?
Samson’s story is in the book of Judges at a time when Israel had no king and everyone did as they wanted, where Judges ruled the land. An angel appears to Samson’s mother and tells her, “Your son’s hair must never be cut, for he shall be a Nazirite, a special servant of God from the time of his birth; and he will begin to rescue Israel from the Philistines”. (Judges13-16)
Samson was dedicated to God from birth and as he grew he became full of physical strength and his fame spread before him. He was one of twelve men and women whom God chose to deliver Israel from her oppressors. These Judges, including Samson were not perfect; in fact, they were all fallible.
Fallible, well, Samson was surely that! He violated his vows to God on many occasions by abandoning his wife to - be, at the altar, murdering 30 men, deceiving and manipulating others, and seeking prostitutes.
Then Samson met Delilah, with whom he fell in love giving away to her the secret of his ‘strength’, his long hair. His hair was cut, his strength failed, his eyes were gouged out and he became a slave to the Philistines.
Some CV now, you might say! Where is God in all this?
Right in it all with Samson: we can almost hear him say, despite my rebellious behaviour, God stayed with me. Despite my promiscuous behaviour, God stayed with me.
Despite my consorting with all the wrong people, using my gifts and abilities unwisely God remained with me. Despite my betrayal of Him with Delilah he remained with me.
He answered my prayer that the Pagan temple would fall. Even as it did, I knew that my strength was in God and God alone, no question. Some CV indeed.
Lord when our strength fails us, hold us up.
When our hearts quail within us, fill us with your courage.
When the finger of temptation beckons, be our Redeemer.
When we imagine, we can do it all in our own strength, draw alongside and remind us of who you are.
You are our strength and our Redeemer.
The story of Joseph is a complex one. An arrogant young teenager full of his own importance is taught a lesson by his older brothers, it all gets out of hand, horseplay ends up in tears, deceit, slavery, and a miscarriage of justice that lasts for years. When the brothers finally met again an opportunity arises for Joseph to take revenge. Instead a wonderful story of grace unfolds.
In our reading today we are being invited to participate in our own grace story. Take a moment wherever you are and invite the Holy Spirit of God to take control of your words today. To take your words of disappointments, anger, and frustration and turn them into words with purposeful meaning.
Like a cat playing with a mouse
I had them where I wanted them
After all they had ‘done me wrong’
What they did to me was unforgivable
I was ‘nursing my wrath to keep it warm’
I was ready to take my revenge
Then you stepped in
Just like you’ve done all my life
You took control
You turned my words of anger
Into words of blessing
As I spoke I saw it for the first time
You are an amazing God
You turn the darkness years
Into moments of great insight
You make all things come together for good
In that moment
I was reconciled to my brothers
But it was you who redeemed my life
You changed me heart
You took control of my tongue
You turned my anger into blessing
It is utterly astonishing
On the turn of a word
Turn all my words today
Into blessings for others.
Today Mark Nicholas steps in front of the shaving mirror and sees Ezekiel staring back. Ezekiel famously shaved himself… with a sword. Not a Wilkinson’s Sword - an actual sword! The prophets in the Bible often did bizarre things that made them more like avant guard performance artists than conventional preachers. In a culture where most people couldn’t read and write - strong visual messages were often important - and to a people who valued priests with hair - shaving it off was a metaphor for a shameful reckoning - being cut down to size. You wouldn’t forget the dude that stood outside Holyrood shaving himself with a claymore would you? That would go viral pretty quick…
What courage Ezekiel had, to embody your view, display your thought to Israel, his beard in three piles.
His baldness reminds me of the vulnerability I can feel when I stand out in your name. And yet God’s cry to his people that the blessing he had given them yielded a nation that was worse than its neighbours.
May we be unlike the rest of the nations. In, but not of, the world.
Father, when I hear your living Word and don’t respond and don’t allow you to work its reality in me by your Spirit, forgive me.
Yet the sword you have put in my hand is no good for shaving, it is for wielding. May your word in my mouth be a sword to make your love real to the people you have placed in the path you have given me.
And may my witness to you encourage others to leave the lifeless gods of metal and plastic and the mortal gods of self, that they may they find their all in you, even as I do.
Today Mark Nicholas slips into the shoes (or should it be sandals?) of Jacob the trickster who is always getting himself in and out of trouble.
When I think of Jacob, perhaps my greatest fear is that I will get my own way. Of all the decisions that are mine to make, for all the situations to which I will respond, is there a danger that I will make trouble for myself? That I might assert or manipulate to my advantage, deluded that you do not see.
Might my best desires be usurped and the ghosts of my crucified self return to haunt me? Might I need a season at uncle Laban’s? Or a wrestle with you at the ford and a heart stopping encounter with my slighted brother?
Might I need to come to the end of myself before accepting the beginning that is you? If there is any defiance, any rebellion, any curse or bitterness, any politician or despot I have tucked deep inside, may your grace extract what my foolishness would nurse.
And yet in you, precious Jesus, all things work together, all our wisdom and our fickleness, for the good of those who love you. So on this day I trust that you will guide and shape and utilise even the unwelcome intrusions, the lesser selves, the self serving fakery, to make a likeness in me like you, that I might be freed from Jacob within to become like Jesus. And so may I limp with thanksgiving that you love me too much to leave me as I am.
We first meet her in Genesis 12:5 when Abram takes her, his nephew Lot and all of his possessions and they follow God’s call out of Haran. Abram was 75, Sarai was 65. And that call to go came with promises of blessing, one of which would be that Abraham would be made into a nation. In 12:7 it becomes a promise of offspring who would inherit the land of Canaan.
In the years that follow Sarai follows where Abram goes, lets Abram pass her off as his sister twice to save his skin, and probably heard in those early promises that her womb would be filled. But years passed without a child. She tried to bring the promise to fruition herself – giving her slave girl Hagar to Abram and they conceived a son, but that didn’t work out and still God’s promise didn’t come to fruition.
I wonder what Sarai faced, what she felt, what she uttered to God in those 25 years that passed before that promise was fulfilled… and greyed, aged and wrinkled she became known as Sarah …. And Mum.
… You might say she’s a complex character.
That’s what I was.
That’s what they called me.
And yet I was obedient…
“Go” You said.
And I went.
I followed where You led.
I heard those words of promise You said to my husband …
A great nation,
Hope seeped away each month as disappointment
Heaped on disappointment.
As I shook my head ‘No’ to Abram’s hopeful questioning look…
An empty womb,
25 years of emptiness,
All those years;
Even when I thought I could fix it myself,
Even when I thought I knew how…
And still a promise unfulfilled.
You surprised us all.
Of hope all but gone,
A barren promise almost forgotten
And You made it happen!
Bitterness, sadness, emptiness;
Making way for life
And a womb
And a promise
And not just for us
But for all.
You call each of us to follow,
You take the most ordinary of us,
And use us in extraordinary ways to fulfil your promises.
Not in ways that we might expect,
And not in nice tidy timescales either.
For in our mess you see opportunity.
In our weakness your strength in known.
And in our brokenness your light shines through.
Take me Lord,
In all of my complexities and mould me so that my life might be a fertile place where the life that you offer to all is seen
Give me faith to trust,
Hope that endures
And strength to persevere on the journey …however long it takes.
When looking into Micah, I came across the ‘covenant lawsuit’ (Micah 6.1-8) where God sues Israel for breach of contract. The people have violated the covenant they had with God. If Micah is representing God and presenting his case then he’s not just a prophet, he’s a lawyer…
Lawyers sometimes hold a strange position in the public imagination. On the one hand they are respected professionals with access to levers of power, but on the other hand - like politicians and journalists - they are often treated with suspicion or made the butt of the joke.
Part of this is a healthy tongue in cheek disrespect of authority figures but there’s also an underlying wariness of those in society who wade into the grey areas and have to make difficult judgement calls. Sometimes there is no easy road and yet they walk it for us. The services they offer are vital for a well functioning society, but as they ask individuals to negotiate conflict, compromise and complexity there is the fear that self-interest or ego will take over.
I’ve found it useful to think about prophets as lawyers - people with a certain status, who are listened to but sometimes distrusted, who have to walk a difficult line. They are people who speak uncomfortable truths, who can challenge power structures and shift public opinion. Their calling requires personal conviction but also the ability to withhold personal judgement.
So as we think about the lawyer Micah, let’s remember all those called professionally to be Complex Characters - those who try to resolve disputes, hold power to account and negotiate peace.
hold me secure,
as I try to say as you say
tell as you tell
shout as you shout
whisper as you whisper.
There is all sorts of stuff about Enoch we are going to puzzle over. For a start he lived to be 365 years old. By the way he was a bit of a disappointment for the pre-flood patriarchs. His father Jared lived to be 962 years, his son Methuselah 969 and his great grandson Noah 950.
On the other hand he did not die but “God took him away”, According to the book of Hebrews chapter 11 v 5 “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: "He could not be found, because God had taken him away." For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.” Only Elijah in the Old Testament was spared death in the same kind of way.
And we may want to scoff, and say another ancient myth being peddled as truth. Scientists are now predicting we will shortly be living to be 140 or 150 but the human body just cannot sustain greater age.
The point that the writer of Genesis is making is that out of these strange ancient stories we can draw a present truth. In all this list of super aged beings Enoch is the least in terms of years. But he is the one, and the only one who “Walked with God”
We often use the metaphor of our “walk with God”. Hymn writers like William Cowper have written powerfully on it as has John Newton:
I pity all that worldlings talk
Of pleasures that will quickly end;
Be this my choice, O Lord, to walk
With thee, my Guide, my Guard, my Friend.
That Enoch walked with God is all the explanation we get for his unusual preferment. Other than the name of his son we know nothing of him. The only choice we know he made was to walk with God.
When the stories come to be written
Make me content with one line
“He walked with God”
All that I did
All that I thought I achieved
Wise words, clever ideas
Will be as nothing
Be it enough
That I chose
Guide, Guard and Friend
Be it enough
That out of the complexity of my life
One thing alone stands the test
Today’s Complex Character is Abraham: great patriarch, wise leader, abusive father…The story that often sticks about him is that he’s the dad who heard a voice telling him to bind up his son, take him up a mountain and kill him… and this dude is a central hero of Islam, Judaism and Christianity?
Bob Dylan, another complex character, once sang:
’Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man you must be puttin’ me on”
God says, “You can do what you want Abe, but
the next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”
Abe is the first in a series of complex characters in the song to face their reckoning out on Highway 61 - the near mythic route that stretches across America promising revelation and damnation, illumination and despair. Let’s look at the Bible passage:
“Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love - Isaac - and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.” Genesis: 22.2-3
We recoil in horror but Rob Bell points out that at the time and place this story was originally told child sacrifice was not uncommon. To folks originally hearing it an angry god wanting a sacrifice of a precious child would have been unremarkable, they would have taken it for granted.
They would have been freaked out by the twist - Isaac isn’t killed. The angel tells Abraham to stop - to not go through with it. It’s baffling to us that someone would sacrifice their child and it was baffling in the original culture for a compassionate god to intervene. We see here a new understanding of the divine emerging, that values human life. God does not want Abraham to guardedly withhold his family but to trust them to God - not so God can destroy them but so God can bless them.
So Abraham was a pretty messed up dude, unquestioningly agreeing to kill his son, at least Dylan makes Abe halfheartedly protest, but he was a product of a messed up environment. Nonetheless God led him to a new understanding, meeting him where he was… out on Highway 61.
I wasn’t half the man I’d hoped I’d be,
Not even half a man,
As I climbed that hill,
I was all at sea.
And I could see,
I was less than half of what I had hoped.
Lead me from here,