The Bible Jesus Read
September 13, 2015
The Union Church of Waban
Let us pray: Come now, Holy Spirit, in wisdom and in truth, to illumine our minds and enliven our hearts, so that your word may be truly proclaimed and joyfully received. Amen.
When I was growing up, I heard stories of my Great-Grandfather Galen and my Great Uncle, who was named Orville but went by “Uncky” to his family. I heard about how, as homesteaders, Galen and Orville secured a little ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota, near the holy mountain of Rushmore. When I was a girl, we would visit that same little ranch. There in a corner of my grandmother’s yard under a pine tree sat a tiny iron pot-belled stove, just the right size for children to make mud pies. When we would play with it, my grandmother would remind me that it wasn’t just a toy– the stove had been Uncky’s sole source of heat during the first winter he spent at the ranch, when he lived in a one-room log cabin—a cabin that was still standing when I was a girl.
In my grandmother’s living room was a round glass-topped end table, and under the glass she had inserted dozens of small family portraits of generations past—old black-and-white images of severe-looking men and women with high collars and piercing eyes. There were babies wearing long, white, frilly dresses, and adolescents whose faces resembled mine and my siblings’ faces enough to tell us we were family. These were my family portraits. They were my family’s stories. Pioneer stories. Stories meant to live on in me.
When Jesus was growing up, he heard family stories. Stories of venerable Abraham and Sarah, who set off for a new land, wanderers following a promise. He heard about Moses, who heard God speak from a burning bush, and who led the people to freedom. He heard about Great Grandmother Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, who were refugees seeking a home together. He heard about majestic Elijah and his ferocious disciple Elisha, who healed the sick and anointed kings when they weren’t yelling at someone. And then there was Aunt Esther, God bless her name forever, who saved her people. And aristocratic Uncle Isaiah and Uncle “Doomsday” Jeremiah, and crazy old Ezekiel and Daniel and Amos —deranged prophets who turned out to be right.
Jesus grew up hearing stories. Family stories. Stories meant to live on in him.
In the gospel reading that Frank read from Luke 4, we see Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. He is in his hometown of Nazareth, and he goes to worship in the local synagogue. He offers to read the scripture for the day—as Frank just did—and he read from the scroll of Isaiah, where the prophet says God has sent him to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then Jesus preached a sermon, saying that Isaiah’s words were fulfilled in his ministry. And then in the remainder of his sermon in Luke 4, Jesus went on to name-check the prophets Elijah and Elisha and compare himself to them. He knew these family stories.
Jesus was Jewish. As a Jew, he grew up hearing and reading the Hebrew scriptures, what Christians have often referred to as the Old Testament. As a Jew, Jesus was part of a tradition that told stories and composed poems, and that preserved its laws and stories and poems in writing. In this tradition, people sought to remember where they had come from, and where they had met God in the past. To be part of this people was to learn to love the scripture that retold this history, to love the writings that encapsulated the law.
We heard Psalm 19 a few minutes ago. The psalmist keeps referring to God’s law, which includes the whole Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Did you notice the psalmist’s attitude toward his scripture? It isn’t, “Dear God, I know I should read the Bible, but it’s so irrelevant.” No! The psalmist compares scriptural writings to the most appealing things he can think of. “They are more desirable than gold! They are sweeter than honey!” Better than mint chocolate chip ice cream from JP Licks! Better than a Swiss bank account!
But this is so different from the way many Christians feel today about their Old Testament. In my work as a researcher, I study people’s attitudes toward the Bible, and one of the things I’ve heard over and over is that Christians don’t really know what to make of their Old Testament. It feels remote, inaccessible. There’s all that violence and tribal warfare. I’ve heard many people refer to the God of the Old Testament as a different god from the God of the New Testament. There’s the God of law, wrath, and punishment in the Old Testament, and the God of forgiveness, peace, and love in the New Testament. This is a very common sentiment.
It’s not a new idea, either. In the early years of the Christian movement, all the Christians were Jews. Jesus’ followers were Jews. But then non-Jews began to become followers of Jesus, and over time, there came to be more non-Jewish Christians than Jewish Christians. And a lot of these non-Jewish Christians didn’t know what to make of the Hebrew scriptures, either.
Then, in the year 144—that is, in the second century, a non-Jewish Christian named Marcion began to teach the idea that the god of the Hebrew scriptures was not the same as the god of Jesus. The god of Jesus Christ, Marcion taught, was the real, true God, who taught love and compassion and was interested only in truly spiritual things. The Jewish god, Marcion taught, was an inferior being who had created the material world. This inferior god, said Marcion, was a jealous tribal deity who was only interested in retribution. Marcion rejected the Old Testament as Christian scripture.
Well, the early Christians leaders met to discuss Marcion’s ideas. And guess what? They emphatically voted him down. No! these Christians said, no, you’re wrong. This writing we inherit from the Jewish tradition—these family stories, these laws and poems and history—it stays. Jesus was Jewish. His scripture is our scripture, too. And ever since then, Christians have said that the Bible has two parts—its Hebrew scriptures, which tell about a creator God who makes a covenant with the people of Israel, and its New Testament, which was written not in Hebrew, but in Greek, and which tells about Jesus and the growth of the Christian church.
Still, I admit, the Old Testament isn’t any easy read. I remember being a high school student trying to read through it, and I got stuck in the passage in Leviticus where specific directions are given for what to do if you get different kinds of mold growing on the walls of your house. What?! The Hebrew scriptures are full of ancient and obscure references to long-dead civilizations and customs, names of kings you’ve never heard of, nations that don’t exist anymore, and practices you might find repugnant.
I can understand why someone might say, ‘This is all so ancient. We live in a modern world with modern problems. The Old Testament is so weird, so old, so tribal and violent. If we’re going to make a difference in the world today, we should be looking forward, not burying our heads in the sands of ancient stories.’
So why? Why keep them? Why read them? For me, there are three really important reasons to engage the Hebrew scriptures. And it’s for these reasons that this fall in worship we’re going to focus on stories from the Old Testament.
The first reason I think it’s important to engage the Hebrew scriptures is that they are the shared scripture of Jews and Christians. There is a long, tragic history of alienation between Jews and Christians, but these—the Hebrew scriptures—we share these in common! Through these writings and the God we know through them, Jews and Christians are family to one another.
If, as a Christian, I ignore these stories, I’m missing an opportunity to connect with my Jewish neighbors. Worse, if, like Marcion in the second century, I say the Old Testament is inferior– that the god it portrays is just a god of wrath and judgment, just an inferior tribal deity–then I’m saying that about Judaism.
And honestly, that’s not the God of the Hebrew scriptures. Yes, the Old Testament God gets mad sometimes. There are real problems to deal with there. But the Old Testament God also says, “Do not fear, for I am with you.” It’s the Old Testament God who says, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, I will answer them.” The Old Testament God commands the people of Israel to care for widowed women, orphaned children, and refugees. The Old Testament God tells the people of Israel that they have been blessed so that they can bless the whole world. The Old Testament God says, “I know the plans I have for you—plans for good and not for evil.” The Old Testament God tells people to forgive one another, and especially to forgive debt, so that there won’t be a permanent underclass. The Old Testament God is “good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love.” The Old Testament God—this is the God of Jesus.
Which is the second reason why I think the Hebrew scriptures matter for Christians today. Jesus was a Jew! The Old Testament is the Bible Jesus read. Jesus’s ministry and teaching only make sense in light of the Hebrew scriptures. When you get to know the Old Testament and the story it tells, you suddenly see Jesus in a whole new light; you suddenly hear him in a different way. If you’re trying to be a follower of Jesus, it makes sense to read the Bible Jesus read.
Finally, I believe the Hebrew scriptures have something to say to us today, if we can enter their world and listen with ears attuned to wisdom. They tell of so much human and divine drama. They wrestle with really hard theological and ethical problems, problems that haven’t gone away since the biblical writers first wrote. The stories they tell are timely.
They tell stories of a creation that is beautiful and also fragile, that needs human stewardship. The Hebrew scriptures tell stories about people who wonder what to do when the law of the land is unjust, when vulnerable people suffer because of the law. They tell stories of indentured servants, slaves, and migrant workers who must find a way to freedom. They tell stories of refugees fleeing from famine and war, and of the people who welcome them across their borders. They tell stories of what happens when the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, and they insist that God cares about poor people. They tell stories of families who are anything but traditional. These families are so dysfunctional that—I promise—they make your crazy family look good. They ask, Where is God when people suffer? And why? Why do people suffer so much? They include poems by people struggling with depression, rage, illness, and jealousy, as well as poems that tell of religious ecstasy, of deep trust in God, of relief from pain. They even offer poems that celebrate sex!
And—despite the Bible’s reputation—the Hebrew scriptures tell a great many stories about women. Women who travel. Women who lead. Women who sing songs. Women who come up with new names for God. Women who desperately wish they could get pregnant and for some reason cannot, or who get pregnant when they had long ago given up hope. Women who are assaulted. Women who defy the powers that be. Women who rise up and save their people. The Hebrew scriptures tell of women.
These ancient stories, these family stories of Jesus—they introduce us to our great-great-great grandparents in the faith, our spiritual ancestors—people whose life and times were every bit as complicated and trying as ours. The wisdom for faithful living they can give us is like well-aged wine, passed down from generation to generation in the cask of story and poem and law. I think that when we read these ancient stories, we become heirs of a living faith.
The story we will hear next week is from Exodus 1 and 2—I encourage you to read ahead. It starts out as a story of two women, Shiphrah and Puah—maybe you’ve never heard of them! Imagine yourself there in their story. Get to know them a bit in advance.
This fall, come meet some of your spiritual ancestors. Come hear the stories for the first time, or for the hundredth. Come read the Bible Jesus read: ancient stories of a living faith.