It is good to see the way in which churches are coming together at the moment in Cheltenham. Yesterday it was good to join with CCC church in the opening of their new home at the Pavilion in Hatherley. It has been great working with Ali Bates, their minister, whose husband had been minister of what was then the New Life Church, Bill Bates, but who died so sadly at a young age. Ali has been very involved working with churches recently and she quite deliberately made a point of asking me to say prayers for their new church home on behalf of the churches and from Highbury because it was not that long ago that their church broke away from Highbury. Clifford Small felt he carried out a healing ministry. I felt yesterday was an important moment in that healing process.
We had met together with the new Area Dean of Cheltenham Tudor Griffiths who is living round the corner from us on Thursday and reflected on working together as churches. It was good to have input from the new Principal of the Mission College, Redcliffe College in Gloucester. And then we found ourselves reflecting on the importance of building up the churches understanding of and involvement in Christians Against Poverty – maybe a significant response to the needs of the town as they are unfolding at the moment.
Then to go on to the Friday meeting reflecting on what The Big Society means for Cheltenham.
There is something very important for us to share as Christians and I believe we have something to share that is firmly rooted in the Bible …but we need to take care in the way we read our Bible.
Part of that initiative of working more closely together involves sharing in prayers for Cheltenham each day from 12-30 to 12-45. It’s in the oldest place of worship in the town, St Mary’s. On the wall are printed the Ten Commandments.
That’s no bad starting place for the needs of our society.
But we must read with care.
Read on in Exodus and I think three things emerge that we have to offer today. But care is needed in the way we read.
First a set of personal standards – in the ten commandments. Jesus offers us a great summary of them: Love God, love your neighbour.
Next the importance of having a framework for society. Notice what I am saying here. The importance of having a framework. What we go on to read in the next three chapters is a good sample of the kind of laws that were part of the framework for this ancient people.
Some would want to take them to the letter and say this is for today.
I believe we have to recognise the need for a framework – but take care in recognising that Jesus has opened up for us new ways of thinking that take seriously the need for a framework but prompt us to think through what is appropriate in the light of Jesus’ teaching and for us today.
Provision is made for the treatment of slaves – but I passionately as a Christian reject slavery and want to oppose the modern versions of it that are still around, sometimes rather too close to home here in Cheltenham in sex trafficking and the like. Slavery is wrong.
Next come laws about violent acts. Capital punishment – not just for murder but for a host of other things as well, not least cursing your parents.
I passionately oppose capital punishment for that range of things – as a Christian that is not acceptable to me.
Then come laws about the responsibilities of owners of beasts, and laws about repayment. Moral and religious laws follow.
Again they give me a glimpse of an ancient framework of law – but not one for today, something has happened with Chist to make a difference.
In chapter 23 there are more principles about justice and fairness. They ring a bell for me. I find myself saying amen when it says, Do not deny justice to a poor man at his trial.
I find myself as a Christian drawn to that principle of Justice and fairness.
Then comes the notion of the seventh year and the seventh day. A rhythm of rest where debts are written off in a jubilee year, where land lies fallow, where there is a day of rest.
There are principles there that I am drawn to as a Christian and want to affirm.
What’s going on here?
Am I picking and choosing at random in a way that demonstrates a disregard for Scripture?
No, I believe something else is going on. And in these sermons I am wanting to offer grounds for reading in a different way that still does justice to the Bible but sees it through the eyes of Christ.
By chapter 24 we see that this framework is part of a covenant that is sealed between God and his people.
First, there is a set of priniples in the Ten Commandments summarise in 2 that are for today.
Second there is a framework that shows the importance of having a framework of laws for the good of society, but has to be read with care.
The third insight is the need for a sense of something other. A sense of the reality of God.
This is something desperately needed in our day – but in a way that is true to what is described here and yet very different from it.
We begin a wonderful description of what will become the tabernacle. A tent that can travel with a journeying people, where they sense the presence of God with them in a very real way.
It’s where the commandments are to be kept, where sacrifices are to be made, where priests are to serve – and where the bread of the presence is to be kept.
A great deal of time is then spent exploring what this tabernacle means. Much later the tabernacle becomes the model for the temple.
We value the sense of the presence of God that I believe is vital to living in the world. But once again you could accuse me of picking and choosing. While I find the description of the tabernacle a fascinating glimpse of how this ancient people of God sensed the presence of God it’s not how I sense the presence of God.
Three insights – a set of principles for personal living, a framework of law for society, and a way of sensing the presence of God. And yet I appear to be picking and choosing the bits I want to follow.
I maintain that what I am seeking to do is not arbitrary. And to help explain what I mean I want to focus on one thing that held central place in the tabernacle, and interestingly it is something that holds central place for us here tonight as well. And that is bread that is placed on a table.
Bread baked from corn – bread that is the Bread of the Presence.
Inside the back cover of the Bible I took with me to the Holy Land I have a stalk with ears of corn. A modern version of pressing flowers – I put it through a laminator. It is a treasure.
It was wonderful to walk through a grainfield just as Jesus did with his disciples in Matthew 12. Jesus walking through the cornfields – it is a Sabbath – and the disciples do exactly as I was to do a couple of thousand years later. Though when I did it it was not a Sabbath. They began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.
Now this is forbidden on a Sabbath elsewhere as that principle of the seventh day of rest is worked out in the Law.
When the Pharisees saw it, they castigated him. “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do n the Sabbath.” It is against the Law, against the Torah, it against these first five books of the Bible to do this on the Sabbath.
What Jesus does is very telling. He tells a story that comes from the next part of the Bible, the prophets. It is almost as if for Jesus that story acts as a commentary on the law. He draws on the story to throw light on what is important for him in the law.
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.
Jesus recognises that The Scriptures are not simply black and white statements that as it were stand for all time. He sees in them a process of dialogue and discussion going on. It is as if from one part of the Scripture a discussion is going on.
What’s more he goes on to point out that within the Torah there are different ways of looking at things – and some of the laws regarding what priests can do break other laws about what cannot be done on the Sabbath.
To read the Bible in the spirit that Jesus reads the Bible we must read with wisdom and seek the guiding of the Spirit of Jesus in prayer.
But in this passage in Matthew 12 I believe a principle can be seen that will help us in our reading especially of the Law of the Old Testament.
Jesus goes on to say in verse 6, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.”
What’s important is the presence of God with us. That presence of God is made real in the Tabernacle. Later, all that was said of the tabernacle is said of the Temple. But now something greater than the Temple is here. And that is Christ. It is no longer in a place, no longer in a tabernacle, no longer with all these instructions that the presence of God is made real. But it is where Christ is, there God’s presence is.
In the breaking of bread around a table, in the gathering together in his name, in the giving of food to someone who is hungry, in the giving of water to someone who is thirsty.
For us, it is in Christ that God’s presence is felt.
Then in this passage Jesus offers us something to measure all the detailed framework of law that. For me this is one of those verses that becomes a key to unlock the words of the Old Testament, and the detail of this law.
Again, Jesus draws on the prophets, this time Hosea, to read the Law in that light.
But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Ono the one hand the over-riding concern that takes precedence over the detail is God’s desire for mercy and not sacrifice. That’s why through the detail of the details of the law I am on the look out for the principles of justice and mercy that underpin that law. And all of it is under Christ who in saying that he is ‘lord of the Sabbath’ shows that he is lord of the Law.
Principles for living life personally in the ten commandments as summarised by Christ Love God and love your neighbour.
A framework of law built around justice and mercy, always remembering that Christ is lord of the Sabbath, lord of the Torah.
And the presence of God with us made real not in the trappings of the tabernacle, not so much in the bread of the presence, but the presence of God made real for us in Jesus Christ himself.