The Bible in a Year – 24 December

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

24 December. John chapters 16-18

Chapters 17 and 18 are the conclusion of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples.  They are immediately followed by the betrayal in Gethsemane and the trial by the two high priests and Pontius Pilate.  These are the readings of Holy Week (the approach to Easter).  So what can they say to us at Christmas?

One word you hear a lot in church at this time of year is “glory”.   It occurs thirteen times in the Bible readings and liturgy for Christmas Eve.  The angels at Bethlehem called out “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of goodwill”.  The opening of John’s gospel that will be read at midnight services around the world tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us; we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

It is easy to talk about glory when we celebrate a miraculous birth. But what did Jesus say about glory as he was about to die? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (17:1-5).

It may seem counter-intuitive, as does much of Christianity when you think about it carefully, that someone about to be crucified can talk about his death bringing glory.  ‘Glory’ as a concept is closely related to ‘honour’, which itself is something less important in our society than it often was in the past or still is in other cultures.  Someone may be honoured for having an important role in society, or for doing something brave or selfless, or for bringing about justice.  No-one is honoured by receiving a death sentence, are they?  But if you think about it, Jesus’ death was a brave and selfless one as he accepted an unjust death sentence in order to start bringing about God’s rule of justice over the whole earth; and far from being the unimportant radical preacher that the Romans imagined, he gained supreme importance when he was resurrected as the eternal Son of God.

So it is that Jesus could speak of God the Father glorifying (honouring) him in his death, as he had glorified (honoured) the Father in his work on earth.  Understanding that makes it easier to understand why the angels sang of glory at Jesus’ birth, for at that time only they knew what would come of it.

 

The Bible in a Year – 1 June

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

1 June. Ezekiel chapters 8-11

In chapters 8-11 Ezekiel has a vision in which he is transported from Babylonia where he has been living, back to Jerusalem whence he originated.   Such physical transportation from one place to another as a part of extreme spiritual experience is not unique: Elijah experienced it, as did Philip (Acts chapter 8), and Mohammed in his “night journey” to Jerusalem.  Whether such transportation took place literally (and hence miraculously) or was only a transcendental out-of-body type experience may be a matter for debate, but either way it is clearly something well beyond the experience of most people, believers or not.

 

The purpose of Ezekiel’s transportation was to show him that those left behind after the first deportation to Babylon – even the spiritual leaders of the community – were not only worshipping false gods, but even bowing down to the sun and allowing prostitution, and all this within the ruins of the temple itself!  Therefore God would allow a second enemy invasion to destroy those people and what was left of the city, until a new and more faithful generation of Jews would be allowed to return and rebuild it.

 

Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God departing from the temple is another example of a prophet seeing a spiritual reality beyond the physical evidence.  A place is made holy by a continuous period of religious observance and prayer; that holiness can be cancelled very quickly by acts of desecration.  Some people seem to be more open than others to a sense of either ‘holiness’ or the ‘numinous’, or conversely the presence of evil or foreboding spirits; I am not one of them.

 

Ezekiel is not a widely quoted Biblical book – the most well known passage is the valley of bones in chapter 37 – but verse 11:19 is an exception. “I will remove from you a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” is often used to describe the experience that Jesus called “being born again”, when someone realises that God is not remote but actually lives in them.

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 30/31 January

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

30/31 January. Exodus chapters 36-40

I’m combining two days readings into one here. These last five chapters of the book are mostly a record in great detail of the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle.  It’s easy to get lost in the detail, and although there is no doubt a lot of symbolism in the way it was constructed, I am not going to try and understand it all.  But taking the making of the tabernacle as a whole, three things occur to me.

 

Firstly, the image one might have, from the world today, of hundreds of thousands of refugees in a semi-arid country is that of hopeless people sitting in tents provided by aid agencies, with nothing to do.   In fact, those who have had the privilege to work in such camps tell of the way in which the people work together to make the most of their situation. If you want inspiring refugee stories, try the UNHCR website. Under God’s leadership through Moses and Aaron, the Israelites managed to pull together to build a large place of worship at the heart of their ‘tent city’.

 

Secondly, the amount of wealth shown here is simply stunning.  The outer shell of the tent is leather (for waterproofing) but inside all is gold and other metals, coloured textiles and acacia wood.  Some of this they would have brought with them out of Egypt, some they may have gained by trading (for they seem to have brought large flocks of animals with them). But the main thing to note is that all the people gave sacrificially to the construction of the tabernacle – whatever precious objects they had, were offered to the community as a whole for its place of worship and meeting.  Too often I come across church communities where members of the church expect all the money for their projects to come from outside, whereas in fact God expects his people, then as now, to show their love for him in generous giving – “all things come from you, O Lord, and of your own do we give you” is part of the liturgy, but also needs to be an attitude for life.

 

Thirdly, when all was finished there was a grand opening.  The lamps were lit, incense burned, sacrifices made, no doubt there was much singing as well, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (as it did the Temple in Isaiah’s day).  You can feel the excitement of the people as they awaited this climax of their giving and hard work, and the reward for it is to experience the very presence of God, in a way that few people ever have.  Thus ends the book of Exodus, which (if the timings are to be taken literally) covers just the first year of what was to be a generation-long trek in the wilderness.  But throughout that time, we are told, the presence of God would be with them and lead them on from one stage to the next.