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Bible Study for the sixteenth week of the Covid 19 lockdown | Barn Church Kew

Parishes of St Philips and All Saints Kew with St Luke’s Kew

Where all God’s Children are Welcome

Section 1 Kings 3:5-12

Prayer:  Loving God, open our hearts to your word and our ears to your voice.  May we hear and understand all that you are saying to us.  Amen.

Read the passage through twice:

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now,

O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

Background

The succession from King David to Solomon was not a straightforward process, not least because David had a lot of potential heirs.  Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba, some way down in the pecking order of sons.  However, many of David’s sons had rebelled against him or gone into partnership with foreign powers, so David and his advisers were intent on having Solomon crowned.  Bathsheba played her part too, by extracting a promise from the dying David that Solomon would be king after him.  For the full shenanigans, read the first two chapters of 1 Kings.  Gibeon is a village not far from Jerusalem, in the tribal district of Benjamin, where Israel had erected altars to foreign gods during the declining years of King David.  Although Solomon was devoted to the God of Israel, he none the less joined in sacrifices at Gibeon to other pagan gods.

Some questions

  • God speaks to Solomon in a dream.  There is a lot of precedent for this, throughout the Old and New Testament.  Why?
  • Given that Gibeon is a pagan site, what is God’s rationale behind this encounter?
  • Why had Solomon gone to the pagan rites at Gibeon, so soon after his coronation at Jerusalem?  Is this a faith decision, or a political decision?
  • If Solomon has dual allegiances in his faith, what does that say about the God of Israel confronting him in this place?
  • If this is purely a political move, after the instability of David’s final years as king, what does that say about the God of Israel confronting him in this place?
  • What if Solomon was in the pagan place for both reasons – faith and politics?  What does that say about the type of leadership he was envisaging for himself?
  • God’s opening line to Solomon is direct – “Ask what I should give you” – while being open at the same time – there is no promise attached, yet.  What would you ask for, if you were in similar circumstances?
  • What do you make of Solomon’s response?  How genuine does it sound?
  • Has God been steadfast in his love to David?  David was by no means a perfect king, his failings were many, and the setbacks to his reign numerous.
  • Did David walk before God “in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart”?  Is this a fair or idealised account of his father’s life?
  • Solomon interprets his receiving the crown as an act of God, when the mechanics of it were messily human.  Is he correct to think this?
  • It is very difficult to work out Solomon’s age when he acceded to the throne.  However, he was not a child, so why does he use such language about himself?
  • David had carried out a complete census of Israel in the latter years of his reign, much to God’s annoyance and against the strict rules of the Law.  It is not that many years since that event.  Solomon has probably got a pretty good idea of how many people there were in Israel.  Why does he say that they are “so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted”?  Is he being disengenuous, or is he demonstrating his knowledge of the Law?
  • What exactly is “a discerning mind”? 
  • Solomon’s request is for the ability to govern wisely, knowing the difference between right and wrong.  Were not all the tools for such governance at his disposal already, in the Law?
  • Has Solomon succeeded through flattery or true humility?
  • God grants Solomon great wisdom and the promise that no one will compare with his “wise and discerning mind”.  What lessons does this hold for us today?
  • Solomon’s wisdom is a gift from God, and has remained legendary.  Given the choice, as Solomon was, what gift would we ask of God today, if he put such a request to us now?  Have you got a different answer from the one you gave earlier in this study?
  • There is a problem with dreams – they have to be reported to others by the person who had the dream.  Therefore, either Solomon is the author of this text, or it is a piece of theological back-filling to explain Solomon’s great wisdom and wealth.  What do you think?
  • God’s wisdom is always available to his creation, and it is not limited to those who govern.  In our current crisis, we all need God’s wisdom in one form or another, but especially those who have big decisions to take, and those with great responsibility for the nation and people’s health and well being. 
  • The relevance of this passage to today is clear.  How will it inform your prayer?  How will it inform your decision-making?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

What has this passage taught you about

  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Generous God, you gave Solomon wisdom to govern with insight and grace.  Grant us that same wisdom, that in our daily lives we may clearly distinguish between good and evil, and walk faithfully with you all the days of our life.  Amen.

Section 2: Romans 8:16-end

Prayer: Help us, loving God, by your Holy Spirit, to read your word and to understand everything that you are saying to us in it.  Amen.

Read the passage through twice:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things

work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called

he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up

for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who

is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things

we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Background

              This is the apex of Paul’s long and involved exploration of what has changed in God’s relationship with humanity since the coming of Christ.  After discussions of different forms of slavery – to sin or to God, to fear or to joy, to the flesh or to the Spirit – he finally reaches his destination: divine love as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and fulfilled in humanity.  Paul’s utter conviction in God’s extraordinary involvement in humanity sets the framework for all other aspects of our Christian life.

Some questions

  • Paul begins this section with a discussion of prayer and how it works.  His opening statement, “we do not know how to pray as we ought” rings very true – and this is Paul speaking out of his vast experience first as a trained pharisee and then as a missionary for the Early Church.
  • However, he goes on to explain a divine mechanism of prayer – by the Spirit, to the Father, on our behalf.  Where does he get this from?  How does he know?
  • How do you react to this?  Comforted?  Curious?  Manipulated? 
  • Where is our freedom to pray if the Spirit re-interprets everything we say in the light of the divine purpose?
  • Paul then sets sail onto one of his finest lists ever.  It is more than a list, really, it is a progression through salvation history, from God’s original knowledge, or plan, to our glorification.  It is not without its difficulties, however.
  • God’s foreknowledge is fine and logical.  It is all part of his divinity.  But “predestined” – why would God predestine anyone?  – for Paul is talking in terms of human beings here.
  • For some, this word contains exclusivity, as not everyone might be predestined in this way for glory.  Is that an acceptable reading of this?  What might be its implications?
  • How can we make this inclusive?   Does God not foreknow every human being who will walk this earth?  Does God not call each human being to love and follow him?  If so, does not predestination apply to everyone?
  • The move from calling to justification to glorification is seamless for Paul.  Where do you think you are currently in that sequence?  Why?
  • “What then are we to say about these things?” is Paul summing up his argument.  It started many chapters before, but the impact of all those ideas is his exposition of the practical outworking of the love of God for everyone.
  • Rather than being vulnerable to the deadly results of the flesh, the Law and the inevitability of decay, we are free from accusation, with no one able to oppose us in the face of Christ’s death and resurrection.
  • The logic is crucial – if God gave his Son to death for humanity, then God will have no accusation against them in any reckoning, as Christ has dealt with everything that could have got in the way of our reconciliation with God.
  • List the reactions you have to this assertion.
  • Paul writes this as an attested fact and will brook no compromise on it.  It is the foundation of his faith and the faith that he is spreading throughout the world.  Is it the foundation of your faith?
  • The second list of this passage, “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” is an amalgamation of both the personal suffering and social suffering that could be experienced in Paul’s day.  How would you update that list for our circumstances?  Would you put Covid 19 in that list?
  • The quotation about sheep to be slaughtered is from Psalm 44, in which a complaint is raised against God who seems to be ignoring the suffering of his people.  However, Paul asserts that however low we might feel, and however distant we might imagine we are from God, nothing will change his love for us or render it ineffectual.  Do you still feel this way, in our current circumstances?
  • These final lines of this passage are frequently read at funerals, for obvious reasons.  Do they have a particular resonance for our day?
  • It is hard to find a more positive piece of Paul’s writing than this final paragraph – apart from 1 Corinthians 13 perhaps.  How will you use this text personally in the coming days?  Is it a text worth sharing with others?
  • Paul intends this passage to take away all doubt, all guilt and all fear from the Christians in Rome.  Does it do that for you, today?

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

What has this passage taught you about

  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Loving God, we rejoice in your extraordinary love, and plead for grace to live fully in the joy and freedom of that love all the days of our life.  Amen.

Section 3: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Prayer:  As Jesus speaks to us, loving God, help us by your Holy Spirit to hear what he has to say, and be enabled to put it into practice.  Amen.

Read the passage through twice:

Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told

them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out

and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household

who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Background

              This collection of parables makes up the rest of Chapter 13, after the parable of the sower and its interpretation and the parable of the wheat & the weeds and its interpretation.  Matthew has deliberately bunched together a series of parables, possibly from across Jesus’s ministry, and is using them as a teaching tool for his community – hence the last section addressed to the disciples about understanding these parables.  Whether we agree with his conclusions is up to us!

Some questions

  • At last, Matthew has provided his readers with unadorned parables!  The mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price are all stand-alone parables, free and open for all readers.  What do you make of them?
  • These are all “the kingdom of heaven is like …” parables.  What does Jesus really mean by “the kingdom of heaven”?
  • The mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world, but probably they hadn’t seen foxglove seeds in Israel.  Nor does a mustard seed produce a tree – more a shrub, if left to grow unpruned.  It can become woody and twisted and full of leaves.  So what is Jesus driving at in this parable?
  • This parable is diametrically opposed to the parable of the sower – it is about one single seed and what it can become if left to flourish.  Who are the beneficiaries?
  • There are echoes of one of Jesus’s sayings about human worries in the Sermon on the Mount here.  But this is like the kingdom of heaven – so how?
  • What sort of God provides so much from so little?  And doesn’t Jesus do the same, in his ministry?
  • Now relate the parable of the mustard seed to the Eucharist … !
  • Yeast mixed in flour – that is what the kingdom of heaven is like, according to Jesus.  Nothing else?  No water, no salt, no kneading, no allowing the dough to rise, no baking?  How is this launching the rule of God in the world?
  • In Jesus’s time, yeast was kept from one batch of bread making to the next.  It is inactive on its own, but transformative in combination with other elements.  It also involves effort on the bread maker’s part – it needs to be folded into the mixture and then set to work.  It starts off separate and visible, but then becomes invisible as it is incorporated in the dough.  How does that describe the kingdom of heaven, or God’s influence in the world?
  • We would quite like our actions to be visibly world-changing.  Jesus has other ideas.  What sort of invisible yet distinct actions can we take that would hasten God’s rule on earth?
  • Banks were few and far between in Jesus’s time, so frequently savings or large payments were simply hidden in the ground, which is why so much treasure is still dug up to this day.  There is evidence of this in the parable of the Talents.
  • The treasure is of greater value than the man’s current assets.  That is the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says.  How?
  • Would you sell everything for the sake of the kingdom of heaven?
  • Joy is mentioned in this parable: one of the very few occasions when it is linked with Jesus’s teaching – there is joy in heaven over sinners who repent in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but little else.  The treasure-seeker experiences the joy – is that us or God?  Why?
  • What is the difference between the parable of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value?  Is it the same description of the kingdom, varied to drive the message home?
  • To sell everything and to follow Christ is the mark of a true disciple – there are many who come to Jesus, wanting to follow him, but turn away when they learn the cost.  Are we still capable of that?
  • Then Matthew falls off the wagon.  The parable of the net full of diverse fish is going well, until he latches onto it and chains it to judgement and glory.  That is not the kingdom of heaven.
  • The kingdom of heaven is a net full of different sorts of fish, some edible, others not.  It is not the disposal of the bad fish that is important, but the differentiation between good and bad.
  • In God’s just and gentle rule, we shall know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, good, better and best.  Jesus is there to help his followers work their way through the minefield of decision making, of contradiction and opposition, of potential (the mustard seed and the yeast) to the prize (the treasure and the pearl) but at the cost of everything we hold dear.
  • Bible Study is exactly the same.  To get through fully to what Jesus is calling us to do, we have to spend all that we have in stored up capital of interpretation and pre-set ideas to seize the richness of God’s word with joy.
  • In this series of Bible Studies through lockdown, we have steered a very wavy course between the familiar and the foreign, and have never stopped asking questions.  As this series now comes to an end, may you never cease to question everything in front of you, so that you may find the true riches of God, the full generosity of his gift to us in creation, in his son Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist and in each other.

Read the passage through again, out loud if possible

Review

What has this passage taught you about

  • God?
  • Jesus Christ?
  • The Church?
  • Our current situation?

Prayer:  Generous and gracious God, we acknowledge the breadth, length and height of your love for us and your concern for all you have created.  Help us to treasure your Word in our hearts and in our minds, that we may always find your pearl of great price and rejoice in all you lavish upon us.  Amen.