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.

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.’

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Who are we? 1 Chronicles

Endings are fascinating – they tell you a lot!

As the first part of the Hebrew Scriptures comes to an end the Book of Deuteronomy runs through the heart of the law once again – as the very title given to the book in Greek suggests it is as it were a second reading of the law.

Fascinating that as the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures comes to an end, the Writings, they reach their climax with one last re-telling of the history of the people Israel.

The Hebrew Scriptures finish with I and II Chronicles.

The history of the first generations of the people from the beginnings of humanity to Saul, the first of the Kings, are encapsulated in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles in a sequence of genealogies.

One massive summary.

And then the remainder of I Chronicles tells briefly of Saul and at length of David.

The writer of I Chronicles is quiet open about using sources – the same kind of sources as are drawn on by the writers of I and II Samuel that are part of the former prophets in the second section of the Hebrew Scriptures the Prophets.

As the collection of books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures come to a climax it is as if a number of things need to be stressed and a number of questions are uppermost.

They are an entirely different set of questions from the ones asked by the writers of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

Those prophetic writers were perplexed by the disaster that had befallen the people of Israel in the exile.  How could this have happened?  They tell the story of their nation in order to try to respond to that question.  They see just how far the people and particularly their rulers had departed from the word of God and the way God wanted them to follow – and in large measure that accounted for the collapse of the people.

IT was a stirring call to return to the ways of God, to shape the lives of individuals and of society by the values of God’s way of ruling.  These are very much prophetic books that challenge the people and their rulers.

I and II Chronicles come from that period when under Persian rule the people of Israel return to Jerusalem, set about rebuilding the city, the temple and the nation.

The question  now is quite different.  It’s not … what’s gone wrong?

It is rather a question of identify.  Who are we?  Where do we find our identify?

Hence the genealogies.

We are the people who belong to the extended families that made up the tribes of Israel and became the Kingdoms of Israel.  This is who we are.  Our identity as the people of God is secured by our belonging to this particular people.

Where do we find our identify?

We are the people who were shaped into a kingdom of God’s people supremely by David?

Where do we find our identify?  In the temple that is in the process of being rebuilt and taking shape again – and it is the temple that the whole story of David leads up to.

What is important about that identity is the allegiance we have to the ways of God – just as our ancestors did before us.

This is powerful stuff.

And it is good.

It is important in understanding the nature of the Jewishness of Jesus and of his times.

But something is very different here in I Chronicles from the story that unfolds in I and II Samuel.

What is it?

Read I and II Samuel and you are aware of all the tensions between the people and Samuel over the big question of whether or not you should have a king, of tensions between Saul and David.  David’s life is very blemished.  His adultery with Bathsheba – his complicity in the murder of her husband.

None of that is present in I Chronicles.

The focus is different.

It really is a temple focus – a large part of the story has to do with the way David brings the ark into Jerusalem, establishes a covenant once again with the people, then draws up plans for the temple – and whole chapters are devoted to lists of temple officials, priestly families and others.

AS the New Testament opens, Jesus is part of this story.

The first of the Gospel writers, Matthew, opens with a genealogy that could have been taken straight from I Chronicles.

It’s interesting how the genealogy does the same thing as it does in I Chronicles.  It is effectively a summary of the history that goes behind the start of Matthew’s gospel.

It is stylised and ordered – shaped into three lots of fourteen – from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, from the exile to the birth of Christ.

This is in itself a powerful commentary on the Old Testament story and gives us an insight into the key turning points that are so significant for this writer.

Abraham up to David.  David up to the exile.  The exile up to the coming of the Christ.

It is as if this writer owns the story told through the genealogies of I Chronicles.  But at the same time he stirs things.  Jesus is fully Jewish … but also Jesus now again shapes the story of Jewishness and gives it a new perspective.

Nowhere is that difference more apparent than when you put together I Chronicles 2:10-15 and 16.

You can see how this is genealogy but also a prompt that reminds you of the history. Of David the youngest of the sons.

Come over into Matthew and two things are added in.


Do you notice the tiny additions that are so telling.  And they anticipate the story that will go to the heart of the story of Jesus.

Mention of Rahab – who is a prostitute

And of Ruth – who is of course a Moabitess.

Two things happen there.

Jesus is fully part of this story.  But Jesus is going to move the story on.

Jesus is going to be the one who will mix with those who are rejected, who are not ‘so-called’ pure, who are marginalised and left out of the reckoning.  This is anticipating the stories of Jesus mixing with prostitutes and the marginalised.

This also anticipates Jesus breaking barriers down between Jew and Gentile.

Jesus ushers in something new again – no longer a focus on the location of the temple and its rebuilding – but on the presence of God in Christ and the presence of God in Christ in the people who hear his word and act on it.

The Kingdom of God is a fulfilment of all the prophets stood for – how important to take into account the challenges, the critique – and not simply the idealisation of things here.

This is exciting stuff.

One of the things that is so exciting is the affirmation of individuals.

9:28ff – the cooks

Chapter 25 – the temple musicians.

Wonderful gifts to affirm and share.

The gifts we each of us have are to be treasured and affirmed too.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Ezra - breaking barriers down

It has to be one of the finest treasures in the British Museum.  But when I put it into a Google search trying to track down a good picture I was surprised where google took me.

II Chronicles finishes and Ezra opens with a quotation from a Decree of King Cyrus of Persia.  When the Babylonian world power crumbled and Persia and Cyrus were in the ascendancy Cyrus took the decision to allow all those peoples who had been taken away from their homeland and cast into exile by the Babylonians to return home.   What’s more throughout the Persian empire returning exiles would be permitted to rebuild their temples and places of worship.

For the people of Israel that meant a return from exile and the re-building of the temple.  And that’s what the books of  Ezra and Nehemiah are all about.

What’s remarkable is that in the British Museum is a very small cylinder with a tightly packed text inscribed on it – and it is one of presumably many edicts written by Cyrus and sent out throughout the empire setting out this decree.  It is so close to the edict recorded in the Bible - it’s a thrill to see it and to see from the Persian side a record of this very same edict.

When I googled it what surprised me was that the search engine did not take me to the British Museum as I had expected but to many exiled Persian groups around the world and in particular to a presentation American groups had arranged when they presented the then General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Anan, with a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder.  It was the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights – and those groups were celebrating what they considered to be the earliest known declaration of human rights in the Cyrus Cylinder.

We are entering the last lap of our read through the Old Testament.  I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are grouped with the other historical books in our English Bible Old Testament.  They re-tell the history of the other books and push it beyond the exile to the return.  And the inspiration of the Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures was to put them into chronological order.

It’s intriguing that in the Hebrew Scriptures these four books are placed at the very end of the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings.  Ezra and Nehemiah come first, and then the Hebrew Scriptures come to a climax with a re-telling of the story of the people of Israel in I and II Chronicles.

If II Chronicles finishes with the Cyrus edict and Ezra begins with it, the way of arranging the books in the Hebrew Sctipures is telling.  This last set of books opens and closes with the Cyrus edict.    What frames the final set of books we are going to look at is the edict that enables the people to return from exile and once again be a nation with a land, a temple and a faith to share.

The first six chapters of the book of Ezra set the scene for the second half of the book that describes the work Ezra himself did.

After listing the returning exiles Ezra tells of the way worship is restored in Jerusalem and the foundations of the temple are laid.  The book ties in with the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah and tells of the way the building of the temple is delayed until finally the temple is re-built and dedicated to the glory of God – and the Passover is celebrated.

As that celebration is described two things emerge that are to play a really important part in the thinking of the people as they return from exile, build their temple and establish themselves once again as the People of God.

As the returned exiles keep the Passover we read that ‘both the Priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were clean.”  As the Passover lambs are killed the Passover is eaten by the people who had returned from exile and also by all wh9o had joined them and, [and this is the key phrase] separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord the God of Israel.
What’s of paramount importance for the returning exiles is to establish their identity.  That’s done in two ways – they are true to the God of Israel and they are different from all other peoples around them.

Into this situation comes Ezra.  He comes from a family that traces its roots back through the family of High Priests.  It was one of his ancestors, Hilkiah who had been High Priest when in the reign of the young King Josiah the book of the Law had been discovered during a refurbishment of the Temple in Jerusalem just before the rise of the Babylonian power that had resulted in exile.  It was a family that traced its roots back to Aaron.

Ezra had been exiled in Babylon.  He is described as ‘a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (7;6)’

I think that’s  a very telling sentence.  It was in the period of the exile that scribes and experts in the law had pored over all the law codes, and documents that had been rescued from the ruins of the Temple and in all likelihood they had assembled them into the kind of shape that we would recognise in the Pentateuch.  They ensured that the Law, the  Torah, could be contained on scrolls that could be easily copied out so that there was no longer any danger they would be lost in some cataclysmic event.

The hand of the Lord was upon Ezra.

Ezra has the support of King Artaxarxes to restore the people and to lead a group of people who will be servants of the temple and play a key role in the restoration of Jerusalem, the Temple and the people of God.

It’s moving to read in chapter 8 of the trust Ezra has in God as he makes his return.

When he arrives in Jerusalem one thing in particular disturbs Ezra.  And that is the way so many people priests included have inter-married with women of other nations.

Ezra takes his stand on the need for purity of race.  And so in 9 and 10 is an account of the removal of all foreign wives and their children.

This is a theme that emerges as the Hebrew Scriptures come to an end.  It is a very powerful theme in these books.  And it is one that we have to address.

It is something that you can trace through among the Jewish people.  The identity of the Jewish people is preserved by avoiding marriage outside the Jewish people.  Purity of race is tied up with identify of faith.

That notion comes across into Christianity.  The importance of keeping personal identity – not mixing with others is instinctively there … and often made explicit.  It is taken to extreme in the closed brethren community whose meeting house is being demolished opposite the manse – it’s not just inter-marriage that is not allowed, but you must not mix with others.  You must keep yourself separate.

It’s there in some measure in all sorts of settings – you see it played out in all sorts of different contexts.  It ties in with a very basic kind of human instinct that wants us to stay with our own.

What do we make of this?  Should we be building up our own identity to the exclusion of others?  Or is there another way/

But there is even within the Hebrew Scriptures a conversation going on.  Is this the only way?  It is not without significance that the book of Ruth is in the way the Hebrew Scriptures are arranged in the same section of the Writings as Ezra and Nehemiah – if you are steeped in the approach of Ezra and you read the story of Ruth it comes as a great shock when at the end of the Book you discover that Ruth, the Moabitess Woman, is the Great Grandmother of none other than King David.  David the product of a mixed marriage.  That’s shock and horror to the reader of the book of Ezra.

By the time Jesus comes on the scene this conversation is very much to the fore.  There are a whole range of responses to this question evident at the time of Jesus.  There were two schools of thought among the Pharisees – one very much more hardline in separation and purity than the other.  But at every turn inside the Jewishness of Jesus’ day is a commitment to identity of race.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the way the Samaritans were treated.   The Samaritans trace their roots to the people who stayed behind in and around Judea when most were exiled. They kept their own Torah – but they didn’t include the prophets or the writings in their Scriptures.  They worshipped on their own mountain at their own shrine.

Take seriously Ezra and you will reject the Samaritans.

It is not insignificant that when we arrive at John 4 the narrative begins in the middle of the controversies there are in different ways of being Jewish.  The Pharisees, some of whom are more hard-line than others, are concerned that Jesus has taken on the mantle of John the Baptist who has positioned himself in the line of the prophets who speak truth to power … and they are scandalised that Jesus has gained more popularity than John in the number of baptisms his disciples have been carrying out.

So it is that Jesus leaves Judea in the south to head for Galilee in the north – But, John tells us, he had to go through Samaria

He arrives at Sychar, near Jacob’s well, and it’s about noon when a Samaritan woman came to draw water and Jesus said to her, Give me a drink.

That elicits a shocked response from the Samaritan woman.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

Then comes the explanation in brackets (Jewis do not share things in common with Samaritans).  That explanation is a direct allusion to all that Ezra stands for in chapters 9 and 10 of Ezra.

There then follows a conversation about living water … the subject moves on to the question of the woman’s five husbands and the man she is with now.

Then the Samaritan woman it is who recognises that Jesus is ‘a prophet’.

She sums up the theological divide.

Verse 20

Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

That is the classic position spelled out in Ezra.

As Jesus responds he is convinced that the days the prophets spoke of, not least in the final chapters of Isaiah were breaking in – when Gentiles would stream into the kingdom as well.

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

Jesus locates himself within the Jewish traditions.  He affirms the tradition that includes Ezra  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know; for salvation  is from the Jews.

But then he goes on to suggest that ‘the hour is coming … and what is more ‘is now here’ when something else comes into play.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

That’s it – something new has broken in.  A new way of being.

How we worship is important – but its identity is preserved in how we worship and how we live our lives – it is not in the exclusion of some.  There is a move towards embrace and inclusion in what Jesus stands for that is worked out in his relationship with the Samaritans.

There is much that we can treasure in Ezra … but much from which we must move on.  If we don’t we are in great danger of the kind of exclusivity that in Bosnia, in Rwanda and in so many places leads to ethnic cleansing and even to genocide.

Out of the maelstrom of the Bosnian conflicts Miroslav Volf wrote a powerful book called Exclusion and Embrace.  In it he explores the challenge we have as Christians to keep our identity and in some way learn from Ezra, while at the same time being true to Jesus in reaching out and embracing ‘the other’.

“If we, the communal selves, are called into eternal communion with the triune God, then true justice will always be on the way to embrace- to a place where we will belong together with our personal and cultural identities both preserved and transformed, but certainly enriched by the other.”[1]

[1] Volf, 225

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Daniel - a vision for a jubilee

Don’t we do things well!

I think there are occasions when you can take a real pride in what we do.

And this was one of them.

It was basically such a simple idea.  A Jubilee New Testament using the latest edition of the New International Version.  Sue recalled how each member of the Sunday School on 31st May, 1953 was given a little Coronation Testament and so Sue ordered fifty of the Jubilee New Testaments.  It was great handing them out this morning.  And if anyone wants one we can order more!!!

Do you know more than 650,000 have been sold for this weekend making it the best selling paperback so far this year!

And then the lunch.

Such a simple idea.  Everyone  having lunch at the same time – just a Sunday lunch with invitations from around the country.

Nothing elaborate – just a lunch.  And to think people all over the country were sitting down to lunch with friends and neighbours.  And we had more than 80 including half a dozen of the households from the houses immediately around the church!  What a simple yet thrilling thing to do.

And then there was the flotilla.  One of our neighbours wanted to be back for the start at 2-30 as their sister was rowing.  Someone else had someone in the family sailing.  I visited Raymond and Brenda who took a great pride in the Evesham mayor’s narrow boat that had sailed the canals all the way from Evesham to be part of the procession.

A wonderful gift of a book.

A wonderful meal together in the community.

Wonderful pageantry!

One thing is without a doubt this weekend – for an 86 year old to have been doing their work for 60 years … and still to be going strong is simply remarkable.

And one of the things that keeps her going is simply the faith that has meant the world to her down through those years.  Wasn’t it interesting hearing the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking of her wonderful sense of humour, her willingness to tease and to  be teased, and the deep and profound faith she is all too willing to share.

Good to read the statement issued jointly by the Presidents of CTE – our own Michael Heaney included.

'We join the nation in its rejoicing at Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. As we celebrate, we give thanks to God that her personal commitment to her role as monarch, and her service to the people of the United Kingdom, are grounded in a deep faith in Jesus Christ which is an inspiration to countless citizens of nation and Commonwealth.  Her understanding of the wholeness and harmony of the nation is a crucial factor in strengthening our commitment to one another. 

There can be no better way for the Christian Churches to celebrate the Jubilee than to take the opportunity to dedicate themselves anew to the service of God, and to seek the common good through love for their neighbours near and far.

We acknowledge gratefully Her Majesty’s faith and her dedication to service, and assure her of the prayers and good wishes of her fellow Christians for the years of her reign yet to come. We pray that all may be inspired by Her Majesty's service: that together we may create a nation where all know they have the dignity and value of the children of God.'

On the threshold of the Year what a Christmas message she gave – so straightforwardly and simply a Christian message.

In a funny kind of way the three elements of today come together in our reflections this evening.

I start with the gift of a Bible.

There are many powerful passages that speak in the Bible.  One of the strengths of the particular New Testament we had to share this morning was the couple of pages at the outset that have suggested verses to read at times of difficulty and anguish.

Addicted? Afraid of dying?  Angry?  Anxious?  Depressed?

Verses to turn to.

Overwhelmed by a sense of the world falling apart about your ears?  Be it personal circumstances, national calamity or world-wide problems?  Again the Bible has something for all occasions.

The Book of Daniel is one of those books for such occasions as that.  The first half is a powerful antidote to the fear that can be so destructive when the world seems against you.  Stand up for what you believe!  Dare to be a Daniel!  And in the fiery furnace there will be another presence with you, alongside you, to comfort and protect you.  In the Lions’ Den there will be the angels of God watching over you to shield and defend you.

And faced with a world that falls apart – hold on to those visions that speak of an ultimate victory through so much that is destructive.

Those visions spoke volumes to people who had come through so much oppression.  As the Babylonians gave way to the Persians, the Persians to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Syrians and Egyptians, and then all to the Romans – there was a power that seemed to have the last word.

But the vision of Daniel go beyond that.  The powers that be won’t have the last word.

And the vision seems to be inspired by something grand and full of pomp and ceremony.  Make no mistake about it the Babylonians could do it, the Persians could do it, the Greeks, the Syrians, the Egyptians and the Romans – they could all do it.  They could stage pageantry at its finest and at its most splendid.

It’s as if Daniel asks you to imagine in your mind’s eye the most regal and splendid of all the greatest royalty imaginable.  And today we can do just that.  It’s a coronation in 1953, a state opening of parliament, and a flotilla of boast such as has not been witnessed on the Thames for 500 years all rolled into one.  Imagine the splendour.  And then magnify it ten fold and a hundred fold and a thousand fold.

This is the vision Daniel has

“As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat. 
His clothing was as white as snow; 
    the hair of his head was white like wool. 
His throne was flaming with fire,
    and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
    coming out from before him. 
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
    ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
    and the books were opened.

And this Ancient of Days won the victory over all that was going wrong.

And then comes the crowning vision …

Beyond all human majesty … one came in that vision to the Ancient of Days … and he was one ‘like a Son of Man’

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Jesus faced the oppression of a mighty power and as he approached his death this was exactly the vision he drew on.  Hold on to this vision he urged his followers and God will be with you … you will share in the victory.

Through death and resurrection those followers of Jesus sensed a remarkable victory Jesus had won … and they looked to him as the one who reigned supreme in the power of his kingdom.

That’s the vision to hold on to – those wonderful words in Revelation 5!

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, 
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb 
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

This is a remarkable vision to hold on to.

And where do we sense the reality of the conviction contained in this book?  Where can we sense the wonder of that vision of ultimate glory?

It is as we gather round to eat the simplest of meals and anticipate a heavenly banquet beyond all our imagining.

And here at this table in the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup we can sense the wonder of that love of God that nothing can separate us from.