Thursday, January 27, 2011

Taking Hebrew Texts Seriously in their Context

(A sermon using the lectionary readings for January 23rd at All Saints' Littleton)

This morning’s Gospel story is one of beginning: Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven has come near. N.T. Wright is correct in asserting that this is not about “our escape from this world into another one, but God’s sovereign rule coming on earth as it is in heaven.” (in Surprised by Hope, quoted by Greg Garrett in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. Bartlett & Brown Taylor, p. 285) This is hope for the here and now, not for the afterlife. Jesus then calls his first disciples: follow me, and they immediately do.

While this message certainly holds opportunity for preaching, I wish to instead illustrate a drawback to our practice of four readings each week: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament letter, Gospel.

Now that you have had me here for some time, you may have noticed that I seldom weave much connection between the Hebrew Scripture readings of the day (the 1st lesson and the Psalm) and the Gospel. (I’m ignoring the New Testament letter today, mostly because it has a different role, written after Jesus’ life).

It might seem like a wasted opportunity to not use the Hebrew Scriptures each week: after all, they are almost always chosen specifically to get to the Gospel story. To illustrate this with a North Country metaphor, the Hebrew Scripture is often seen as the winding trail, with plenty of potential missteps and wrong turns that eventually leads to the Gospel destination: the mountain top, if you will.

Looking back on the Isaiah reading and the Psalm, it’s easy to show them as a path to Jesus. The Isaiah passage says “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shine.” (Isaiah 9:2)

The Psalm’s first two verses (the Book of Common Prayer version of Psalm 27) are an even easier path to following Jesus:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

A perfect clear path to the top of the mountain, following Jesus "all the days of my life."

I could simply pull these parts out, and ta-da: instantly I have connected all of the readings.

However, there are a few problems doing this...

Looking closely at our Psalm numbers, you can see that we have left some verses out this morning.

After the question “of whom then shall I be afraid?”, the Psalm reads:

When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell.

Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid;

And though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.

Why are these lines left out? Well, most likely because they muddy the picture. They complicate the easy lines to draw to the Gospel lesson.

By doing so, we’ve lost the crucial context of the Psalm. Overwhelming fear permeates this text: the present situation is daunting at best. Fear and worry over the situation is likely to either paralyze the person, or cause him to resort to violence.

What the Psalm-writer asks, though, is not the destruction of his enemies, nor strength in battle to win the day, but to dwell in God’s presence. The Psalm-writer realizes that while oppression seems certain, and death a possibility, that it is only God’s presence that one really needs. Maryann McKibben Dana writes, “When the threat of violence and defeat looming, the psalmist asks only for God.” (FOW again, p. 276)

There are a lot of questions and themes to then explore in the Psalm...all of which could richly enlighten the other readings. The sad reality is that there isn’t enough time in the confines of a church service to properly explore all four readings.

Just setting the Isaiah reading into it’s proper context would take many hours...we’re talking about 66 connected chapters.

Trying to neatly tie all of the readings into one path to the Gospel isn’t possible, or in anyone’s best interests.

Christians certainly hold the Gospels in special light. It is after all through Jesus that we find our path to God. It is no wonder that our primary time together in the worship service is focused on Jesus’ ministry and its connection to our lives. That’s how it should be.

However, it’s easy for us to forget that Jesus was formed within the foundation of Hebrew Scripture, which provided the backbone for his life’s work.

It’s also worth pointing out that the way we use Hebrew Scripture in church is nothing like the way Jesus did. Jesus didn’t pull two little excerpts from scripture each morning and then spend his day expanding on them, or bettering them, proving them old and outdated. Instead, he seems to have ingested the meaning to be found within scripture...the example provided and the truth it pointed to...and then brought the teachings into the framework of his life and ministry.

This morning, I wish to be an advocate for taking our Hebrew texts seriously, in their own context.

As Christians, we are right to talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture, but what we need to remember that what we are really pointing to is that Jesus fully embodied the scripture. So if we are to gleam real understanding from the scriptures that enriched Jesus, we must do so by seeing that they contain the truth of what our relationship between God and each other could and should be. They are not simply old material to be thrown together to create a singular path to the Gospel story. Instead, they are formative trails in their own right: each leading to a viewpoint of God’s beautiful world...and a destination worthy of deepening our understanding of God’s relationship with us all.

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