Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Old Testament

It was the then  Bishop of Gloucester who came up with the words.

And they were the inspiration for our celebration of the Bible at the start of the year of the Bible.

"Translation it is that openeth 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."

Miles Smith in the Preface to the Authorised Version 1611 

Taking that last analogy we have been taking the lid off the Old Testament and reading it through the eyes of Jesus.

My inspiration for the enterprise was taken from one of my favourite stories, the story of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing,   Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 

How good it is to talk and discuss when things go wrong.  And for these two the bottom had fallen out of their world.

17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’

Their reply is a wonderful summary of all that Jesus did.  They had recognized something in him.  What was it?  That he was a prophet.  They knew their Hebrew Scriptures, or at least they thought they did.  And they recognized in Jesus one Moses had anticipated, one who stood in the line of prophets from the earliest of days right through to John the Baptist.

They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25

Classic, isn’t it that the men should not believe the women!

Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?

Jesus was Prophet but more than a prophet.  Messiah, but not the kind of Messiah these two mistakenly were still looking for.  His was a path that would take him through suffering to glory.

Then it is that Jesus does something so very special.

27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have had a microphone hidden in the clothing of one of those travelers and to have recorded what Jesus would have said.

Jesus takes them on a whistlestop tour of the Hebrew Scriptures interpreting to them the things about himself in all those Scriptures.

It’s seven miles we are told.   What’s that, a couple of hours.  Not long.

The point I take from this is that the Old Testament needs interpreting.  And it needs interpreting by Jesus.

Microphones weren’t invented in those days.

But the hunch I have been working on is that Jesus’s way of reading the Scriptures really shaped the way those two read the Scriptures afterwards.  When they get back to Jersualem, having met with the risen Christ, they share the joy of resurrection with the other disciples, only to discover that Jesus has appeared to them as well.

Then it is that Jesus appears to them again, with those wonderful words, Peace be with you.

And what does he do?  Has something to eat – broiled fish, and bread.

And then he gets down to it.

‘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.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 

He does precisely the same thing.

Not just the two, but the others found the way they read the Scriptures we think of as the Old Testament was shaped by Jesus.

The way they preached the message of Jesus in those sermons that are recorded in Acts is shaped by the way the risen Jesus helped them to see how the Scriptures should be read.

The way they came to write down the story of Jesus was shaped by that very approach he had opened up for them to the Scriptures.

That means that if we carefully read the Gospels, and listen out for the way the Gospel writers see Jesus drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures we shall have a strategy for reading these sometimes very difficult books of our Bible.

And we should be able to see a wonderful over-arching story.

Those books of the law do give us an understanding of God’s ways for the world.

Larger than life stories of the beginning give us insights into the world of every generation – that is the world of God’s creation, and we’re to look after that world just as a gardener looks after the garden.

But there’s something that gets into each of us, individually, as a family, as a community, as nations of the world – that draws us away from God, into disobedience of God … and yet God is always there giving people, families, nations the opportunity to make a fresh beginning.

Those true to life stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekkah, of Jacob and Rachel of Joseph and ultimately of Moses and Aaron are stories of great faith – but also show the way maps out a way of life for all to follow and the way God’s blessing reaches out through his people to give blessing to all the nations of the world.

What’s at the heart of God’s way for the world?  The ten commandments are reduced by that teacher of the law that put Jesus on the spot, and by Jesus himself in true rabbinic fassion to two – Love God, Love your neighbour.

And in his parting words to the disciples Jesus reduces the two to one … a new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you for by this shall everyone know you are my disciples.

Love is the measure of the law.

There’s a general principle that emerges in Deuteronomy – obey God,. Things will go well, disobey God and things fall apart.

When things did fall apart when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people taken into exile the Babylonians went off with the  Gold, the bronze, the silver, while the Jewish people took off the law codes, the state archives.

While experts in the law put the law codes together into something very close to the five books of the Torah, the books of the Law that open our Bibles, there were prophetic historians who were piecing together the story of Joshua and the settlement in the land of promise, of Deborah, Gideon, Samson and the Judges, of Samuel, Saul and David and the people’s longing for a king like the nations.  Of the power and glory, blemished as it was, of Solomon and then in subsequent generations of the division of the kingdom into two – the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

Samuel spoke God’s word of challenge at the very first, Nathan spoke God’s word of truth to David – you are the man – who has destroyed not just the marriage of another but his life as well!  What anguish.  And then came those prophets – Isaiah speaking truth to power in the 8th  Century BC with Amos, Hosea and Micah.  In the wake of the collapse of the northern kingdom Jeremiah speaking truth to power as the threat of the Babylonian power emerges together with Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah.  And then those powerful words of Ezekiel with Haggai, Zecharian and Malachi as exile unfolds.  There’s hope in the words of Joel, and of Jonah and of Obadiah.

Prophets who hold the powers that be to account and seek Justice and righteousness.  They give shape to what it takes to be ‘King’ in God’s kingdom’ – the anointed one of God – the messiah

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear; 
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 
Oh, if only it were so simple.

Obey God and all goes well.

A good general principle.  How it is worked out in the former prophets, how those writing prophets stand for what is good and right and all that is of God.  But the world is a more complex place than that.

In poetry and prayer, in praise and lament, in words of agony and in words of timeless wisdom, the third section  of the Hebrew Scriptures opens with Psalms, Job and Proverbs.  How Jesus treasured the insights of the psalms echoing that Psalm 22 on the cross in his agony – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  And yet reaching the glory o fPsalm 24 in resurrection – Who is the King of glory?  The Lord of hosts he is the King of Glory.

And how do you get from the agony of Psalm 22 to the glory of Psalm 24 – Jesus knew it so well.  I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  The Lord is my shepherd I’ll not want – yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

How precious those words to Jesus!

How he valued sharing in the great festivals – it gave a rhythm to his year.  And that rhythm is echoed in our Christian year too.

The five little scrolls of the Megilloth

Song of Solomon at the festival of Passover
Ruth at the festival of Weeks or Pentecost
Lamentations on the Ninth of Av commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem
Ecclesiastes at the festival of booths
Esther   at the festival of Purim

One thing you cannot get away from in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the life and teaching of Jesus and that is that life can be a struggle.  An awful struggle.

Not least because all too often those of faith, find themselves up against the powers that be.

What courage and hope there is in the apocalyptic writing of Daniel!  How Jesus valued that sense of courage and hope in the face of devastation as he contemplated living out our faith in the face of the powers that be.

For Jesus law and prophets were so important – the reading of he law Ezra was so committed to was at the heart of what Jesus was about – what’s written in the law are all the words from Genesis 1 to Deuteronomy 34. Buyt much more important is to ask ‘how do you read the law’.  And that boils down to love for God and love for neighbour.  Ezra and Nehemiah, I and II Chronicles too are concerned to identify exactly who my neighbour is and limit it to my people.

But Jesus sees a much bigger picture.  The time is coming and now is when God is spirit and those who worship him will worship him in spirit and in truth not in a temple located in a far off city but in every place and in every heart.  How do you read the law – well think of a story – not just any story but the story of the  Good Samaritan and realize that all are our neighbours no matter who they are!

What does it all boil down to?

In the sermon on the mount … Jesus is quite sure …

‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Back to Jesus …

45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.48You are witnesses of these things. 

We can be witnesses to these things as we read the Scriptures through the eyes of Jesus and as we do that the Hebrew Scrripures we think of as the Old Testament will come alive in new and wonderful ways.

To read the Scriptures we need to sense Jesus walking the road with us and as we do that we shall find our hearts burning within us as he opens the Scriptures to us.

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