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.

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