What do you hear when you read the Bible?
When you read the Bible, what do you hear? Do you hear the words of an angry and jealous God in what we call the Old Testament? Do you hear a God biding his time until a day of Wrath and Judgement?
Does God seem different to you, in our so-called New Testament? If that’s the case, could it be that we have been led to believe in an interpretation that in fact sells itself short and leaves us confused and possible disenchanted? There are lots of questions here, because I strongly believe we are in a time when we should be asking ourselves questions, as a church, as a family, as a community, as a country.
The Gospel means “Good news”. In the early days and years of the church, the message was clearly interpreted as Good News by the poor and scary to those in power. When we preach the Gospel today, is that still the same? Why doesn’t it seem to have the same power as back then? Why would most people equate the Gospel with “Bad News”, with a call to lead a boring life, rather than a message of freedom from slavery? For instead of a message of freedom. People hear a message of slavery. If that is the case, have we been getting it wrong? When did the way become just another option of belief open to people in a world that refused to accept any one particular truth?
What would happen if people instead heard a message of forgiveness and of freedom rather than of judgement and slavery? Whether we look at traditional or more charismatic styles of worship, we have tended to embrace a vision of Jesus being sent from heaven to save his flock and to rescue them FROM the world in order to take them to heaven. It’s a model that is especially prevalent in the popular American model, in which we see mega-churches, TV evangelists and claims of rapture at the end times. The real problem is that the original message has been totally divorced from its original context and words and their original meanings have been forced into a totally different worldview. It’s not surprising that the message has lost it’s force. It is a model where we all too readily restrict Jesus and the Holy Spirit to a role that only consists of personal salvation. How easily we try and box Jesus again. This leaves us with conferences that rely on conversion stories, of individual testimonies from an ex burglar, murderer or drug addict. Is this really what the original writers of the Gospels or Letters had in mind?
Let us therefore take a look at our readings today and try and compare different ways of looking at them and then attempt to see if we can obtain a more congruent message from both pre-Christian and Christian scriptures. My way of saying “Old and New Testaments”.
The very first thing to keep in mind is that when they were written all of our scriptures were written from within a Jewish worldview. It seems a basic thing to say, be we easily forget it and we desperately need to keep in at the forefront of our mind if we hope to stop ourselves falling into bad habits too easily. In other words, so that we can understand them better, we need to try and read them from the viewpoint of a first or second temple Jew. We need to put aside if we can views of an atheistic enlightenment that has impacted on our interpretation of these scriptures where God is placed more and more as a peripheral player leaving humanity to sort things out as we like.
If we read Isaiah as though every use of the word “I” relates to the prophet himself, we will tend to be led towards an individual model of salvation as I have warned about already. More than that though, Isaiah 49 v 3 just makes no sense, as here the identity of the individual is unambiguously that of Israel itself, “He said to me, you are my servant Israel”. So the “I” here needs to be read as referring to Israel. At other times it is much more confusing of course and it sounds like a story about a person. We are left with the question. What is going on? Perhaps it is a complex piece of writing that allows for both understandings, that challenges us to see multiple interpretations and hold them together.
One of the important things, is that is we allow ourselves to read the OT through the eyes of Israel, the nation called to be a light to the nations, then instead of seeing a vengeful, angry, jealous God we can see instead God showing intentional and unconditional love towards the people whom He chose to fix creation. I believe that we also see that this is echoed in Psalm 40. God is ever faithful to the covenant that he has made with Israel even if Israel isn’t, or can’t be.
Paul, who is a Jew in case we forget, sees this and sees in Jesus God coming as human to do what Israel can’t do and in so doing fulfills their part of the covenant. This completion, then is directly what allows Paul to reach out to the rest of the world. Phase 1 has been completed with Jesus’ crucifixion. Phase 2 was announced with the resurrection. We are in phase 2, preaching forgiveness of sins and freedom from exile, and praising the one true God.
We, like the church in Corinth, are now freed from the societal constraints to worship idols other than God; we need of course to remind ourselves every day. We are now free to worship the one true God who has defeated and made powerless the idols that we have ourselves created, and the ones that we continue to create. Those empty puffed up idols of celebrity, power, sex and money; tools that we have given over control to rather than managing and enjoying responsibly, that continue to wreak havoc principally because we forget that they are now powerless and like unsupervised toddlers they create destruction in their wake.
It means that you are free to be what you are meant to be, an image of the one true God. How do we do this? We are called to reflect God to the world in order that whoever me might meet gets to in turn meet with God themselves to experience the intentional and unconditional love on which creation itself is built.
Next time you read the bible, ask yourself; What do you hear?
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit