The Bible in a Year – 20 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20 December. John chapters 7-8

Finally Jesus returns to Jerusalem where he knows that the authorities are looking for a reason to have him killed.   He does not hide from them but confronts them, and the crowds who are present for a religious festival (presumably the Passover). It seems that he wants to make the maximum impact in the short time left to him, in the hope that a few at least of those who hear his teaching will accept it and continue to spread it after his death and resurrection.

Jesus makes much of his relationship with God (whom he never refers to directly, because of the Jewish taboo against using the name of God) but calls him “the Father” (or “my Father”) or “the one who sent me”.  But he comes pretty close to identifying himself as divine in some of the exchanges in chapter 8: “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (19), “I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (23), “I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence” (38), and finally “before Abraham was, I am” (58).  This last statement angers them enough to threaten him with stoning, for it amounted to blasphemy: not only did Jesus imply that he existed before the start of the Jewish religion (indeed, before all time), but the very phrase “I am” in a religious context was considered to be one of the unutterable names of God.

The thrust of his argument though, is not to set himself up as Lord over the people, rather to urge everyone to regard themselves as children of God, and to be open to the possibility of eternal life.  But it does not work.  When they claim to be children of Abraham and following the law of Moses, Jesus points out that neither Moses nor Abraham would condone killing someone for their beliefs.  When they criticise Jesus healing someone on a Sabbath (yet again), he makes the reasonable point that they themselves consider it acceptable to perform circumcision on a Sabbath – so if that, why not healing? When he offers “the truth that sets people free” (8:32) they simply say that they are not slaves so what would they need to be freed from?  As they say here in Yorkshire, “There’s none so deaf as those who won’t hear”.

To be fair to the Jews of Jesus’ time, though, it has always been the case that when someone comes along as a prophet, revolutionary or radical, the majority of people do not want to believe their message.  We all prefer to stick to the understanding of the world that we have either been taught as children, or discovered for ourselves in youth, or which keeps us in a comfortable stability as adults.   To be challenged about your religious heritage, or set of moral values, or to be told that you are suffering from some deficiency or addiction that you need to be freed from, is uncomfortable at best, maybe even threatening.

The call of Jesus is always to something better, though it may not seem like it at the time.  And the more we understand of it, the more challenging it may be.  Few people in his own time stuck with him through the events of Easter, and few will follow now.  But the call, and the challenge, are always there. In the words of a seasonal carol, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in”.

The Bible in a Year – 17 October

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17 October. 2 Corinthians chapters 1-4

There is one theme that St Paul keeps coming back to throughout his letters, expressing it in different ways.  That theme is that if you think it is enough to rely on “keeping the law” to be in a right relationship with God, you have missed the point.

In chapter 3 (headed in the New Revised Standard Version as “Ministers of the New Covenant”), he explains that the Kingdom of God is something so counter-cultural, so different from the idea of “keeping the law”, that such people don’t even realise it’s there.  It’s as if the very fact that God gave us commandments to keep is like a veil or curtain that stops people seeing the truth behind it, which is that being in a right relationship with God is a matter of loving faith.  Or to use an English idiom, they cannot see the wood for the trees.  The trees are the individual commandments; the wood is the Kingdom in all its beauty.

But what can remove the veil, if endless study of religious laws and faithful attempts to keep them cannot?  “Turning to the Lord”, is Paul’s answer, that is to Jesus Christ.  The removing of the veil reminds Christians of Good Friday, when the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom as a sign that the sin and death that separated humanity from God can no longer do so because Christ has removed their power.

We need a new way of living in a post-veil world, and the Holy Spirit is key to that. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (3:17).   We will not get far if we treat the ethical teachings of the New Testament like another set of ten commandments, written on stone to bind us to particular actions (or the avoidance of them).  Rather they are to be “written on our hearts” as the ways in which the Holy Spirit sets us free to act out the love of Christ to others.  In doing so, Paul says, we will be transformed “with ever increasing glory” (3:18. NIV) into the likeness of God.  What an amazing thought!

Do you sometimes fail to see beyond the veil because you are concerned about whether all your actions are right?  Ask the Holy Spirit to remove the veil from your eyes!

The Bible in a Year – 24 May

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24 May. Jeremiah chapters 34-37

The book of Jeremiah, as I have noted before, is confusing because it is not in chronological order.  For instance chapter 37 records how Zedekiah was installed as a puppet ruler of Judah by the Babylonians, but earlier, chapter 34 opens with Zedekiah already in post.  In it, this turncoat king does something extraordinary: he applies one of God’s commandments which the Jewish people had ignored for centuries, that they must not keep any of their fellow men or women as slaves – or at least not for longer than 6 years and only if the servant in question had voluntarily sold themselves into slavery (presumably to pay off a debt).

 

But no sooner had the slave-owners complied with the law than they tried to recapture the freed slaves. The law of God meant so little to them that even when enforced by the authorities, they tried their best to get round it for their own advantage.  God’s response was to ironically tell them that for denying others their freedom, they themselves would be ‘free’ from God’s protection and would be killed.  So often people see religious rules as purely restrictive when in fact they represent a form of protection: to follow God’s way is to receive his protection against falling into the sort of sin that rebounds on oneself.  The more people in a society who live by faith, the healthier that society will be. And the more who ignore God’s laws, the worse it will be for everyone.  It’s a lesson that is forgotten in each generation and has to be re-taught and re-learnt, often the hard way.

 

In chapter 35 the Recabites are held up as an example. They seem to have been an ascetic tribe within Israel, continuing to live a nomadic and austere lifestyle even when the rest of the people had been living the ‘good life’.  They might be compared to Quakers or Amish, for example, or the monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Although to others their self-denial might have seemed pointless, in fact their faithfulness to God was contrasted with the self-seeking of the majority.  We need such people in our society today.  Where can they be found?  There are some small Christian communities who live in this counter-cultural way, but if anything they are to be found more in secular movements and communities where sustainability of food, energy and the environment are more likely to be the aim rather than obedience to God.  But why not both?  Why are more Christians (or people of other faiths) not living this way?  It’s a challenge and one I know I must face myself.

 

In chapters 36-37 (going back to the previous reign of Jehoiakim), the king calls for the scroll that Jeremiah has had written of all his prophecies to date, and because he will not accept their message he burns it.  Burning sacred writings is always a provocative act, yet Jeremiah was a man of peace, and rather than retaliate himself he merely emphasised that the king was provoking God to wrath, and had a second copy of the scroll made for posterity, while he himself was put in prison.  It is not easy to walk the way of non-aggression in the face of such opposition.  Few people manage it; Jeremiah and Jesus were among those who did.

The Bible in a Year – 8 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

8 March. Deuteronomy chapters 28-29

The difference between obeying and breaking the covenant between God and his people is set out in the starkest possible terms.  Keep it, and they could expect peace and prosperity.  Break it, and they could expect not only poverty and drought but also defeat in war, diseases and plagues of all kind, and starvation to be point of men eating their babies and women the afterbirth.   Images no doubt intended to frighten the mass of the people into obedience.

 

Is this an image of religion that people still have today?  That we believe if you don’t keep every rule in the Bible you will be punished for it in this life as well as the next?  If so, it is completely wrong. Even in the Old Testament there is much about God’s mercy and patience.  And ever since Jesus came to proclaim God’s gift of undeserved grace, the burden of keeping the law has been lifted, and we are free to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74,75).  There will be much more to write about this later in the year when we get there, but for now the message is “do not be afraid” (sometimes said to be the most common phrase in the whole Bible).