The Cross – Part 6 – Matthew
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Palm Sunday – Isaiah 50:4-9a
When I was at college about 200 years ago I developed a theory of preaching which has stood the test of time, and which I am now passing on to my students. I reckon there are three types of sermons. ‘OK’ sermons are … well … OK. Then there are ‘But how?’ sermons. You should all be praying a lot more than you are, but there is no help given about how I actually go about that, so that I’m left feeling even more guilty. And finally ‘So what?’ sermons are great on theological insight, and may have imparted to me some new information, but I am given no help in understanding what that actually means for my discipleship, and how it makes a difference. I remember as a student on placement explaining this to the congregation, and telling them that if I ever preached a ‘But how?’ or ‘So what?’ sermon, they were free to shout out the question. Of course this was too much of a challenge for the Youth Group, and one Sunday the inevitable happened. So I rose to the occasion and gave them an impromptu further 20 minutes of application, which cured anyone of ever shouting out again.
Today’s passage, from the third so-called ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah, couldn’t be accused of being ‘So what?’ In its wider context, the passage is an answer to the accusation from Israel in 49:14 that the Lord has forsaken and forgotten his people. No, says God through the prophet, far from it. The servant, a personification of the whole people, lists some of the things God has done, but then goes on to give application, which completely removes the ability of anyone to shout out ‘So what?’ The servant has been given an instructed tongue, so that with wisdom he can sustain the weary (v.4). God has spoken to him, and as a result he accepts persecution without the desire for revenge (v.5). God helps him, so he sets his face with determination (v.7) Again, God helps him, so he does not fear being condemned (v.8) There words, spoken to an exiled nation who believe that God has forsaken them, form a double rebuke. It simply isn’t true that God has done nothing for you, but what have you done with what you have been given? How has God’s wisdom enabled you to encourage others, or have you just joined in with their whingeing? Are you able to treat your captors with mercy, and accept from God’s hand the punishment you so richly deserve, realising that it’s a fair cop? Are you flinty faced and looking for salvation, or has despair crept in a sapped your life away? And do you really believe that in the end you will be forgiven and vindicated?
Once we read the passage in that light, it becomes a bit easier to see why our lords and masters have chosen this as a passage for Palm Sunday, because the role of the Servant is so perfectly lived out in the next week of Jesus’ life. He is indeed going to be beaten and mocked, but today is the day when above all he sets his face firmly in the direction of all that suffering and goes out to meet it head on, believing that vindication will be his, which of course it was seven days later.
The real challenge, though, comes predictably enough in the verse after our set reading (again!). Who among you fears the Lord? The trust in him, and rely on him. And lest you fear that this is a ‘But how?’ blog, the next chapter tells them how to build their trust: by reminding themselves of their history and looking to their promised future.
We know that Jesus must have constantly looked to the Jewish Scriptures for inspiration and comfort: indeed the words of Psalm 22 were on his lips as he died. The words of Isaiah’s Servant Songs must have shaped his ministry profoundly. Today we are challenged both to welcome Jesus with praise and enthusiasm into our lives, but also to walk with him towards the cross, and ultimately to the resurrection.
The Cross Part 5 – Revelation
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 5 – Passion Sunday – Jeremiah 31:31-35
As I write we are some way along following Boris’ ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, and I hear around me two conflicting views on this, particularly with regard to church. There are of course many who simply want things to go ‘back to normal’, a highly understandable view in which we can simply sweep the last year away and carry on as though nothing had happened. On the other hand, though, there are others who are asking questions about what we have learnt from this year of lockdown, and doubting whether having to get up and dressed before going to church on a Sunday really is an improvement on slobbing in your dressing gown in front of your laptop with coffee and toast in hand.
Our passage from Jeremiah is a familiar one, and we all think we know what it’s about, i.e. Jesus. But in context it looks forward not to the New Testament but to the return from exile and the resumption of normal service after decades of exile in Babylon. As in our Covid-ridden world, there are those who just want to get back to normal, not least Ezra and Nehemiah who can’t wait to rebuild the city walls and the Temple so that things can be just as they were before the unfortunate interlude which mucked life up so severely. Jeremiah represents a different tradition, though, where he desperately hopes that some lessons will have been learnt, and that things will be far from normal. His vision of a new deal, and a new relationship between God and his people, wasn’t actually fulfilled until Jesus gave it flesh and bones, but it was what Jeremiah hoped for, and what he could see as the only sensible way to move forward after the exile.
Covenants have been on my mind at lot this Lent. As well as the three we have examined in these blogs, I have also been marking student essays comparing and contrasting the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Not one of them spotted the key to understanding the main difference, which lies in this familiar passage. The ‘Commandments’ (which we have already identified here as not being commandments at all) are clearly ‘the covenant [God] made with your ancestors’ when he took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. That covenant was soundly broken, and it was clear to Jeremiah that something new was needed. To get back to normal after the Exile would simply mean more false worship, more disobedience and more heartache for the people and for their cuckolded husband, God. So Jeremiah’s hope was for something different – a way of living not based on external prohibitions and Laws, but on changed desires for the human heart. What God really needs is not people who are frighted to disobey him (not that a good dose of fear isn’t very good for us at times, like my fear of blue flashing lights when I’m speeding – not that I do, of course, being an IAM advanced driver). What he needs is people who want nothing better than to please him, and who, when they fail, as they will, are as heartbroken about it as he is.
In the event post-exilic Israel wasn’t actually a whole lot better than before, although the false gods they worshipped were different – wooden panelling in their houses rather than wooden idols on the hill-tops. But Jesus came not to lay down a new law, but to change people from the inside, as he poured out the Holy Spirit, enabling them to be changed from the inside out. Jesus is the divine transplant surgeon who literally gives us new hearts. This could only be done, as today’s Gospel explains, at the cost of his life. How tragic, then, that in the Church we so often try to make that journey in reverse, replacing the true and overwhelming desire for God’s glory, which ought to be our entire raison d’être as Christians, with a legalistic approach which is about doing our duty for the Almighty and hoping that if we only disobey him in little ways we might just scrape past the pass mark.
Jeremiah’s new covenant is essentially about freedom from rules and regulations, and a new heart which has as its highest desire that God be honoured and glorified. That’s what ‘the new normal’ is meant to be like.
For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 4 – Numbers 21:4-9
Our Sunday lectionary only ever gives us three passages from Numbers, so today is a rare treat, and also why I have chosen to deal with it today rather than the alternative readings for Mothering Sunday. The story of the bronze snake is one which repays some attention, not least because of the ways in which the story is used later on in the Bible.
The first thing to say is that when set in its wider context this passage (if we include verses 1-3 with it) provides a close echo of Exodus chapters 14-15, and I think we are meant to get that reference. The patterns in both cases is this: God gives a great military victory to his people (the Red Sea, the conquest of Canaan), they encounter hardship (no drinking water, boring food), they get angry (with Moses, with Moses and God), punishment follows, Moses intercedes, and the people get a way out. In fact this is a very common pattern in this period of their history, and what I think we’re meant to get from it is that this story isn’t about a nasty, impetuous God who dishes out deadly punishment at the slightest hint of sin. Rather it is about a God who, like the people in v.4, becomes impatient with the repeated faithlessness and grumbling of the people who can’t see past their own stomachs, and quickly forget what God has done for them when he doesn’t instantly do what they demand next.
There is an interesting twist here, though. The people, quite naturally want the snakes to just go away, and that’s what Moses prays for, but the Lord’s answer is not what they want. Instead of getting rid of the snakes, Moses has to make one more, but this time out of bronze, and lift it up on a pole so that anyone who looked to it would be healed. They were still getting bitten, but with a glance they could be healed. Many Christians believe that if only they could be free from temptation or suffering everything would be fine: God’s way was to provide a cure for, not to remove the possibility of sin. That’s exactly what Paul agonised over in Romans 7, and that’s what we struggle with on a daily basis.
But as we look wider than just this passage, we find a couple of significant references to the snake. The first is that it becomes an object of idolatrous worship; the second is that it becomes a picture of Jesus’ death on the cross. John 3:15-16 refer back to this incident, and make the point that in a world of sin God showed his love towards the human race by lifting up his son on a wooden cross in order that those who chose to turn and look to him could be set free from the richly-deserved punishment for their sin. If you haven’t already found them, you might be interested in my series of four podcasts on John 3:16, which you can find here. But the first reiteration of this story is far more sinister. 2 Kings 18:4 tells us that the bronze snake had been given a name (Nehushtan) which means ‘The Great Serpent’ (or possibly ‘The Great Brass’, but in either case it’s ‘great’). It had also become an object of worship for the Israelites, who had been burning incense to it, in direct contravention of the second Commandment (Ex 20:4-5). So it had to be smashed up in order to prevent this idolatry.
What is interesting here is the fascinating reversal by which people moan at the true God, in an escalation of past stories where they only moan at Moses, but then go on to make a false God to worship. There is something deeply human about this. We love to put down God, and those who worship him, through posters on the side of buses, through the way we blame him for whatever goes wrong in our world, and through our failure to give thanks to him for what he has given to us (Rom 1:21 – the subject, by the way, of a series of podcasts coming to revjohnleachblog soon. That’s enough shameless plugs. Ed.). But then we do actually need objects of worship, so we create other things like the latest car, the next computer game, that long-awaited holiday, or our lottery tickets, to do what idols do, which is to rivet our attention, centre our activity, preoccupy our minds, and motivate our action. And of course even Christians aren’t immune – Israel was after all God’s chosen nation. It can be so easy to make that which is meant to turn us to Jesus into an object of worship in its own right, whether that be a particular style of worship, our favourite Prayer Book, the singing of worship-songs, the bread and wine of Communion, the furniture and equipment of our churches, a ‘lucky’ cross, or our favourite preacher on the God Channel. It’s all so easy, and all so tempting. This story reminds us that no bronze snake, nor any man-made stuff, can save us from the sin which is so viciously out to get us. Only looking to Christ crucified can do that. In a couple of weeks’ time we’ll have a special opportunity to gaze at Jesus on the cross, as we celebrate Passiontide. Let’s not see other things instead.
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For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 3 – Exodus 20:1-17
Today’s passage is a very familiar one – what generations of Christians have called ‘The Ten Commandments’. But familiarity can breed contempt, and it can lead us to believe that we understand the passage fully. On one level, of course, understanding isn’t really the point – we just have to obey these commandments if we want to please God. But as always, to place this particular few paragraphs in their wider context will help us to see more of their richness.
The context, as far as our lectionary is concerned, is the idea of Covenant – this is the third OT covenant we have looked at during Lent. We have said that covenants are agreements between two parties, one stronger than the other, and that they are usually mutual, although the first, with Noah, was entirely one sided in that it was about what God would do for the human race, with no quid pro quo back the other way. This covenant is clearly different: God would be their God if they lived in these kinds of ways. But let’s put that idea in a bigger context. If these words are about what the people have to do, look at what God has already done. He has heard the cries of misery of the enslaved people; he has called Moses to set them free; he has revealed his divine name to the people, and through a series of mighty acts he has led them out of slavery, opened the Red Sea, and destroyed utterly those who would still be out to get them. It is also interesting that the preface in v.2 begins ‘I am the Lord your God’. This is crucial: the people do not keep these laws so that they can be in a relationship with God: they keep them because they are already in a relationship with God.
Secondly, though, let’s have a look at the words used here. Interestingly the word ‘commandments’ isn’t used anywhere in this passage. In the Hebrew they are simply the ten ‘words’. We might appropriately translated this as ‘teachings’, not commandments. And of course when you think about it, how can you command someone to love? Rather than being the hard and fast legal commandments we have thought them to be, these are much more like wise teachings for the smooth running of society. Actual Laws come later. These teachings are the basis of their covenant: God has done all this for you, he has become your God, so it would make good sense for you all to live like this.
As Christians there are clear parallels here, which St Paul is going to explore at length in his writings. As Christians we are not saved because we do what Jesus wants us to, or more specifically we don’t do what he doesn’t want us to do. We live in a particular way because of what Jesus has done for us, because of the relationship which he as initiated. I don’t pick up my dirty socks from the bedroom floor in order that I can be married to my wife: I do it because I have come to discover over the years that that is what she likes me to do, and my greatest aim in life is of course to please her. Paul is insistent that we are not saved by keeping the Law, even if we could, but because of what Jesus has already done.
But of course Paul then has to go on and answer the question ‘So what’s the point of the Law at all?’ His answer is twofold. The Law shows us how bad we are, and it stops us being worse. If there was no Law, we couldn’t break it. We could do exactly what we liked. Before March 18th 1935 there were no speed limits on British roads, so it was impossible to be nicked for speeding. But as soon as it was introduced, it was possible for people to break the law and become criminals. The Law suddenly showed people that they were sinners. But it also stops us being worse. Many people drive at 80 or 90 on British motorways because the legal limit is 70. But if there were no speed limits: well, suffice to say that I once got up to 125 on a German autobahn. We might break the law, but not as much as we would if it wasn’t there.
These Ten Teachings, therefore, are not there to show us how to enter into a relationship with God. They are there to show us what pleases him in the organisation of a society run with wisdom, love and care. And of course Jesus upped the stakes considerably when he expanded the Law to include what we thought as well as what we did. Without these Teachings, which, interestingly form the basis of the Laws in many many countries of the world, we would all be a lot worse, but even as we are we need a Saviour. No way could we do all this alone, and no way could trying to do so earn us God’s favour.
The Cross Part 3: St Paul