Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Climax to the Old Testament - 2 Chronicles

It was to have taken us a year.

How appropriate that was the year of the Bible.

It’s actually taken us 19 months.

But at last we have arrived!

We have read through the whole of the Old Testament in the order of the Hebrew Scriptures … and it’s all online, just waiting to be re-ordered into a user friendly format.

And occasionally one or two people have actually had a peep.

And that in a very exciting sense is a point we have reached in our journey.

As we come to an end of the Hebrew Scriptures we are reaching that moment when the task of compiling all this wonderful array of writings of all sorts of shapes and sizes and writing styles into a manageable collection is well under way.

The final set of four books, Ezra, Nehemiah, I and II Chronicles coming as they do at the end of the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings, centre around the importance of having a written record of the law and manageable records of the narrative of the people of Israel.

You learn a lot from endings about the people who were writing these books.  You learn a lot about the world Jesus came into.

And the ending of the Book of II  Chronicles comes as a bit of a shock to our system as Christian readers.  After all II Chronicles ends in a very different place from the ending we are accustomed to as English readers in the way our Old Testament is ordered in our Christian Bibles.

That different ending place has a significance for us as we look on to the story of Jesus.

Our Christian Old Testament finishes in the Prophets, specifically with the Prophet Malachi and with Malachi chapter 4.

The Christian Old Testament ends on a note of expectation as it looks to the coming day of the Lord when ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”  When people will go out leaping like calves from the stall.  And the wicked will be overcome.

It’s a time to remember the teaching of the books of the Torah, the law.

And it’s a time finally to look to the coming of the prophet Elijah who will herald the coming of that great and awesome day of the Lord.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will  not come and strike the land with a curse.

That reading of the Old Testament finishes with an expectation of the coming of a great Prophet and is full of Messianic expectation.

Mark takes up that story.  Luke takes up that story … and it’s a powerful story.  And we tell our Christian story with an emphasis on the fulfilment of prophecy, with an emphasis on the identify of Jesus as the Messiah.  With the coming of the day of the Lord.

But interestingly, that’s not quite where the New Testament actually starts.

Our New Testament starts with Matthew’s gospel.

And somehow there’s the feel of a continuation not so much from the end point of Malachi, as from the end point of II Chronicles.

Just as the Chronicler uses genealogies to sum up and recapitulate the whole story of the Jewish people, so too Matthew opens with a genealogy that summarises that whole story … and leads us wonderfully to Jesus.

Jesus enters a Jewish world and is very much part of that Jewish world.  One of the worst things that has ever happened in the history of the church is the neglect of that truth.  As soon as followers of Jesus started to think of Christianity as another religion over against Judaism they began to see Jesus as someone distinct from ‘the Jews’.

It’s already beginning by the end of the 1st century, but it really only becomes tragically hard and fast with the seeds of anti-semitism in the wake of Constantine’s conversion and particularly with Augustine.

It is really on since the holocaust that Christian interpreters of the Bible have drawn out the Jewishness of Jesus, the Jewishness of Paul and the Jewishness of their whole world.

That’s something that becomes very apparent if we pay careful attention to the way the Jewish Hebrew Scritpures come to an end.

There is, first of all a wonderful symmetry in the start and finish of the final four books of the writings.  It is the very thing that prompted the oh-so logical Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to rearrange the order.  In our English Bibles the end of II Chronicles leads  beautifully into the beginning of Esra.

In the way these four books are ordered in the Hebrew Scriptures they begin in Ezra in exactly the way they finish in II Chronicles 36.  It is as if there is a wonderful over-arching theme.  We finish II Chronicels as we began Ezra.  With the edict of The Persian Emperor Cyrus allowing the return of the exiles to their homeland and allowing the rebuilding of their temple.

II Chronicles starts with Solomon and tells the story of the divided Kingdoms without including any of the damaging bits about Solomon, with little reference to the turbulent times faced by the Northern Kingdom and with a critical account of the Davidic dynasty in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

Then the Hebrew Scriptures reach their climax with the fall of Jerusalem and then Cyrus’s proclamation of liberty for the emiles.

22 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: 23‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.’

Notice three things here for us as Christian readers.

First, the Emperor of the then world Power, Persia, lays claim to ‘all the kingdoms of the earth’.

The emperor is used by God to enable a house to be built for God – that’s to say, a temple.

And that temple will be in a specific location – Judah.

God will then be with his people.

And the people of God will go up to the temple in Jerusalem and so into the presence of God.

This gives us a tremendous insight into what is central for Jewish people.  This is what their Jewishness is all about.

From this moment on Jewish people have had to live with an often hostile non-Jewish power.  And this gives Jewish people a way of coping with that situation.  You will see it on the wall of the Synagogue in Cheltenham.  You will hear it read at every Sabbath gathering of Jewish people throughout the land.

A plaque giving allegiance to the monarch – even though not Jewish, and a prayer of loyal allegiance to the monarch.

That finds its roots in the indebtedness at this moment to a non-Jewish ruler in Cyrus who was so generous to the Jewish people.  This is the climax of the Hebrew Scriptures, this is at the heart of Jewishness – and we must respect them for it.  And you see it in Jesus’ approach to the God-fearing Centurion, in Paul’s words in Romans 13 about obeying the Emperor and in Peter’s words in I Peter too.

Then there is the focus on the temple in Jerusalem, and on the land, on the promise of God’s presence and the final words – Let him go up.  The longing to return to Jerusalem.  The wonderful ‘next year in Jerusalem’.

These few words go a long, long way towards an understanding of the Jewish people in the state of Israel, their willingness to work with Western Powers that are non-Jewish, their focus on temple, on Jerusalem, on the land. And that wonderful sense that God is with us.

But these are the strands that are uppermost for us as Christians as we come to hear the Gospel of Jesus in a Jewish setting.

In Jesus’ day there is a world power.  The Roman Emperor.  And there is a half-Jewish, half-Idumean, would be King of the Jewis exercising massive power in Judea and Galilee – Herod the Great and the Herodian Dynasty.

Matthew opens as non-Jewish magi come seeking a king and they go to Herod the Great expecting him to be in a palace.  Luke opens in the temple, in Jerusalem and dates the beginning of the ministry of Jesus in the time of the Emperor Tiberias.  And Matthew, Mark and John make a great deal of the clash between Jesus and the Herodians.

And then at the climax to the sequence of temptations Jesus is taken to a high mountain top and offered by Satan the kingdoms of the world.  This is the satanic temptation Jesus resists to seize human power and be a world-emperor power.

It’s in John’s gospel right at the outset that the minisry begins in Jersualem and in the temple

Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.

He was speaking of his own body.

And by John 4 Jesus is suggesting God is neither located in Jerusalem nor in any other place but God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Jesus’ ministry opens with each of these three strands right to the fore.

Jesus is all about the Kingdom coming – but not in thrall to a human power, not located in a particular location, and not in a temple made of stone.

But it is in his presence that all these things find their fulfilment.

This is thrilling and something wonderful to hold on to.

And there is one more thing.

Where do the Hebrew Scriptures finish?  It is with a wonderful promise that God will be with his people.

And where does our Christian new Testament begin.

We have an echo of The Chronicler as the Christian NT opens in Matthew 1 with a genealogy that serves exactly the purpose of the genealogies that I Chronicles opens with – it serves to sum up the story so far – from Abraham to David, from David to Exile from Exile to the coming of Jesus.

Then Matthew goes on to tell us who this Jesus is.

Who is Jesus?

21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 

God is with us.

The whole story of the Hebrew Scriptures is finding its fulfilment in Jesus –

Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him

Jesus.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

Let him go up!

If the first book of our Christian New Testament starts where the Hebrew Scriprtures in II Chronicles left off, so too does its ending!

The promise is still there – Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him.  But the challenge is no longer Let him go up to the temple in Jerusalem in Judah.

Now the challenge is to go into all the world and know that Jesus is with us always.

The Jesus who fulfils all the Scriptures, Law, Prophets and Writings says not just to his disciples but to us …

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

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