Sunday, 16 January 2011

Opening the Scriptures

The great thing about a walk in good company is the opportunity it gives to set the world to rights. That’s exactly what those two friends were doing as they made their way from Jerusalem on their 7 mile journey to Emmaus on the third night after the execution of the One they had hoped was the person to redeem Israel, to set Israel free, to liberate Israel.

As far as they were concerned this Jesus of Nazareth had been a prophet mighty in word and deed, but so much more than a prophet.

But their hopes had been dashed as this Jesus had been arrested, condemned to death and crucified.

It was a sorry sight, they walked with a heavy heart. Hardly a brisk purposeful walk, but a dejected walk, their whole purpose in living had been destroyed in that one dark Friday afternoon.

Someone drew alongside them and joined their conversation. They told him everything that had happened, how their hopes had been dashed. For a moment their faces lit up as they described the way some women spoke of finding an empty tomb. There was talk of resurrection. But they were not convinced.

The stranger had no sympathy for their state of mind.

“Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!,” was his immediate reaction.

“Was it not necessary that the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God, the King in God’s Kingdom, should suffer these thengs and then enter into his glory?”

They had not thought of it that way. And yet what he said rang a bell. Hadn’t Jesus himself said something similar? Hadn’t he spoken of the road to Jerusalem as the road to the suffering and the death of the Messiah?

The ache went from their hearts. It was as if this stranger was re-kindling the enthusiasm that had been dashed in the events of that week. They warmed to him.

‘Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’

It was nothing less than a revelation to them. They had not read the Scriptures that way before. The Scriptures they had grown up with came alive in a way they had never done before. However often they had read their Scriptures, and they had grown up with them, they had always been a little bit of a closed book. The way he brought them all together opened it all up.

Later that same night, after that remarkable moment in their home when in the breaking of bread they had seen with their own eyes that this was the very Jesus they had been following, risen from the dead, they looked back on that remarkable conversation, and as they were making the return journey to tell the wonderfully exciting news of Jesus’ resurrection to their other friends back in Jerusalem they were no longer dejected, but with a bounce in their step, They put it in a nutshell,

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

The scriptures they were talking about of course, we know of as the Old Testament.

When we find the Old Testament sometimes difficult to get to grips with we can take heart that we are not alone. It was something of a closed book to these two friends and they were steeped in reading it as their Holy Book, their Scriptures. We are not so steeped in the Scriptures of the Old Testament so maybe it should come as no surprise that it can feel a little bit like a closed book and someone needs to open them up for us.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been able to eaves drop on Jesus as he ‘opened the Scriptures’ to them? I have a feeling if we had been privileged to hear Jesus we might well have found our hearts burning within us and we might well have found that the Old Testament was opened up in a way we had scarcely believed possible.

It is a pity in one sense that we cannot eaves drop on that conversation.

But in a very real sense I think we can go some way towards re-constructing the kind of thing that Jesus shared that evening with those two friends. To do that we need to enter into the spirit of a time team investigation into some historical event in the past.

Those archaeologists start often with an empty field. Looking at it you would never imagine what could be discovered by digging away beneath the surface. As they dig away and use their remarkable tools of historical research they slowly piece together a picture of the story of maybe a medieval town, or a Roman fort. And by the end of their investigation the story has come to life.

I think it is possible to piece together a picture of the way Jesus read the Old Testament. I want to go further than that and say that if we are to read the Old Testament effectively as Christians we need to endeavour to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus.

It is interesting to notice in this final chapter of Luke’s gospel that the two friends on the Road to Emmaus were not the only two people Jesus ‘opened’ the Old Testament to in this way.

When they get back to the upper room in Jerusalem they find the eleven and their companions in the upper room filled with excitement because they too had met with the risen Jesus. Notice not just the eleven, but also their ‘companions’. Judging by the kind of listing of the people who made the upper room their base Luke provides us with in Acts 1 that in all likelihood would have included the women who had been the first to tell of the risen Jesus.

While they were actually talking about everything that had happened to them on the Road to Emmaus and listening to the others tell of everything they had witnessed, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus urges them to touch him and be sure that he is risen indeed; he then shares a meal with them of broiled fish.

Then … and this is the very interesting observation Luke makes in his record of what happened that evening … he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures …”

By the evening of this very first day of resurrection the two on the Road to Emmaus, plus the eleven disciples, plus an unknown number of companions had listened, enthralled, to Jesus opening up the Old Testament in a way that thrilled and excited them, in a way that made sense of it for the first time.

Within 30 years, one of those who was there that evening, Peter, had shared his recollections of the wonderful good news of Jesus with a much younger follower of Jesus who may well have been one of those companions and Mark’s gospel was put together. Ten or so years later it is just possible that one of the eleven, Matthew, then adapted and expanded Mark’s gospel drawing on a collection of sayings of Jesus he had access to as well. Around that time Luke set about researching the story for his friend Theophilus, and on the basis of eye-witness accounts and other records put together his Gospel. Shortly after that the last of the Gospels in our New Testament came into being quite possibly penned by another of the 11.

Some there are who are a little more sceptical regarding the identify of the four gospel writers, but most would accept that they are written within the lifetime of those who were eyewitnesses of these events and that the Gospel accounts draw on those eyewitness accounts to tell their story.

The thing that excites me is first, that Jesus could in the space of a two or three hour walk to Emmaus and later that evening a talk in the upper room, give such an overall view of the Old Testament that it came alive in a new way for the two, the eleven and their companions.

Second, among those who heard Jesus give this remarkable account of the Old Testament are those who contribute to or, as I would argue, actually put together the four Gospels.

In telling that story of Jesus they take into account the insights he has given them into the way the whole Old Testament hangs together and shapes all that Jesus did in his life and ministry, in his death and his resurrection.

So while we may not be able to eaves drop on what Jesus said on the Road to Emmaus, or in the Upper Room later that evening, we can examine the Gospels and piece together the way Jesus handled the Old Testament, and see something of the way he read the Old Testament.

That, I believe, is a way into reading the Old Testament that brings it alive, that makes it speak to us and to our world in a thrilling way. It is a way into reading the Old Testament that opens it up for us as Christian readers that can make our hearts burn within us.

What Jesus shared that evening with the two and with the eleven and with their companions offers us a framework that enables us to see through to the heart of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament spans a period of more than a thousand years, is written over a period of 750 years, and contains no fewer than 39 books. In the church bibles it runs to 927 pages. How do you hold all that together and bring it all alive in the couple of hours it takes to walk 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus?

The clue lies in a conversation I had with my Aunty Nansi when I was 15.

She was an English teacher. I was doing O Levels. I could not write an essay for love nor money.

In half an hour she gave me a method for writing essays and for that matter anything else unlocked the key for me of writing essays and everything else.

Her approach was based on the conviction that you should be able to structure what you want to say around at minimum 3 at maximum 8 points, and usually 4, 5, or 6.

You might want to say 30 or 40 different things. See how you can cluster them into groups and then give what you say a shape around 3 or 4, 5 or 6 points.

That’s exactly the approach Jesus takes to the Old Testament.

And in doing that he is simply doing what Jewish people of the time did in reading their Hebrew Scriptures.

He groups the Hebrew Scriptures into three parts.

Verse 27 speaks of Moses, all the prophets and all the scriptures.

Verse 44 speaks of the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms.

The Jewish people actually use an acronym to describe what we Christians think of as the Old Testament. They call it the Tanak.

T stands for Torah , the Hebrew word for Law - God's Way in God's World
N stands for Neviim the Hebrew word for Prophets - God's Word for God's World
K stands for Ketuvim the Hebrew word for Writings of which the Psalms is the biggest book - God's Wisdom in God's World

So, we are going to look first for guidelines from Jesus in the Gospels about how we should read the Law. Then we shall move on to the Prophets and the remaining writings of the Old Testament.

May what we read of Jesus in the Gospels open our minds to understand the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

We will explore what it takes to be Messiah, why the Messiah should suffer and what impact his suffering and resurrection makes on the way we respond to a suffering a world. We shall see what repentance entails and why forgiveness of sins is so important that it should be proclaimed in the name of Jesus to all nations beginning form Jerusalem and reaching out into all the world. We shall see what it means for us to be witnesses of these things, and how that will shape the very way we lead our lives.

And as we read the pages of the Old Testament we shall be aware of a God of glory, a God of power, of God most high … and we shall find that we cannot hope to live the life Jesus calls us to live, and follow the way he opens up for us unless we draw on that very power, that very strength.

And the wonderful thing in all of this is that we can be sure that we shall be able to draw on the power and strength of God that may be unseen yet is so very real.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Word Made Flesh

Of all the celebrations 2011 will bring, none can be of greater significance in some ways for the English speaking world, and for the church in these islands than the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version, the King James Bible.

Broadcaster and writer, Melvyn Bragg, spoke from the heart when he said, “There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible not Shakespeare set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.”

Andrew Motion, until recently, Poet Laureate said with equal fervour, “The King James Bible is a cornerstone of our culture and our language. Whatever our faith, whatever we believe, we have to recognise that the rhetorical power of this book and in particular its power fto fuse history with poetry connects at the most fundamental level with our own history and poetry.”

Even Richard Dawkins has joined in singing its praises as a cultural icon.

What is it about a translation of the Bible that has such power?

For those engaged in producing this translation it was not a literary masterpiece that they sought, far less a cultural icon. They sensed a power within the Bible that their translation could unlock.

Miles Smith wrote these words in the Preface:

Translation it is that openeith the window, to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.

It was the conviction of the translators that their translation would release a power that was in some way locked up in the words of the Bible.

I don’t so much want to celebrate the majesty of the Authorised Version, the grandeur of its language – but I want to discover again what it is that is released by such a translation as we read the Bible.

There can be no better place to start than in the opening words of John’s Gospel.

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2The same was in the beginning with God.
3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The God we believe in, is the God of creation.

The God we believe in is the God who communicates.

He is the God of the Word.

That Word is in the beginning with God, it is the very thing that brings creation into being.

We touch that Word in creation itself … and we touch that word in the words that make up the Bible. It is the very Word of God. It is a life-giving word that is a lamp unto my feet and a light for my path.

The Word of God is a wonderful word.

And yet, it can be fraught with difficulty. It can be difficult to discern the ‘Word’ of God in creation – there is a dark side to nature as we know only too well from natural disasters to the brutality of nature red in tooth and claw. We often need people to help us find understanding of the wonders of nature. It’s one of the things that prompts me to tune into the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures each year and this year join a lecture room full of youngsters marvelling at the way size matters in surprising ways in the world of nature. People help untangle the mysteries of nature and for me help me to make sense of nature and what goes on in the world around me. As I make sense of nature and that world, I have a very real sense of the awesomeness of God in creation. For me it is as if those people are witnesses to the Word of God in nature.

For me the same applies to the Word of God in Scripture. Often it is simple to understand – I can see the power of God’s word instantly in those wonderful words of Jesus we shall be using in communion … come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

But in just the same way, there are parts of the Scriptures I find difficult to understand. Whole swathes of the Old Testament seem to come from a different era, reflect a different way of looking at things and seem quite alien. Where is God’s Word in all of this?

There are swathes of the New Testament that are complex, difficult to work through, not least in the Authorised Version, especially in the letters of the New Testament.

Once again, I feel in need of people to guide me in my understanding. People who have made a study of the world of the Old Testament can make it come alive. People who have grappled with Paul, make him speak in a way today that is filled for me with God’s word. These are the witnesses that help me fathom out the depths of God’s word; they are the ones like the translators of the Authorised Version who open a window on to the wonders of God’s Word in the Scriptures.

To discern God’s Word in nature and in God’s creation, I need help from people who are witnesses to it.

To discern God’s Word in the words of Scripture I need help from people who are witnesses to the truth it contains.

This is precisely the insight of these opening words of John’s Gospel.

It is the conviction of the writer that God recognises our need of someone to be a witness to the light that is in the Word.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

The Christmas readings from Luke’s Gospel speak of the birth of John the Baptist. The birth is foretold, and the story of John the Baptist and of Jesus, and the story of their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary are all intertwined. In Matthew and Luke the nativity readings lead on into the account of John the Baptist’s ministry. This wonderful Christmas reading in John’s Gospel starts in the same place.

John the Baptist is ‘a man sent from God’. He is as it were the last in a long line of witnesses whose task it is to point people to the Light and so enable people to recognise the Word of God.

But at this point in John’s Gospel we begin to see that for the writer of this Gospel something even greater and more wonderful has happened.

There has come someone who is more than just a witness to the Light. Someone has come who in a very real way, is the Light. The next words of this prologue to John’s Gospel point towards the coming not of a man sent from God to be a witness, but of one who himself embodies the light, and is the very word of God.

The writer of this Gospel has spent time in the company of Jesus, has witnessed the signs he did, the teaching he shared, the death he endured, and the resurrection victory he won. He has lived a life-time following the Way, the Truth, the Life opened up by this Jesus. And he is convinced that he is the true Light. He has the power to transform and change people’s lives and enable them to be one with God.

9That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
12But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
13Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
14And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

In Jesus Christ supremely we can see that Word of God that makes sense of the world of nature and the world of creation. As Jesus opens the window we can see the God who is alongside us in the middle of the suffering and darker sides of the world of nature. That’s where God is.

But it is in Jesus Christ that we can also see that Word of God that is in the words of Scripture. He is the One who takes the lid off the well an enables us to draw life-giving water from the depths of the Scriptures and discover in them the Word of God that is a lamp unto our feet, a light for our path, the Word of God that gives life to all who believe.

That’s what I want to set out to do on Sunday evenings through this 2011, the year of the Bible. I want to focus on Jesus Christ and through him grapple with the Old Testament. My hope is that as we draw on Jesus, his teaching, his life, death and resurrection, we shall find that the Old Testament is opened up in such a way that we can see in it the life-giving Word of God in all its life-changing power.