Human sin and God’s responsibility: Potters Bar 17 Nov 2013 (2 Kings 21)

To be a Christian is a calling, a vocation, from God. Every Christian is called to fulfil the work that God intends the Church to do and only secondarily to receive blessings from God. It is this idea, of Christianity as a task, as something to be done, that provides one of the profound continuities with our Jewish origins and which makes reflection on the character of King Manasseh a good starting point for our attitude to the problem of why such terrible things continue to happen in our world and their connection with human sinfulness.

 

In hearing what the writers of the theological history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah have to say about the greatest villain in their story we need to remember when they were writing, who for and why. These books were written after the great disaster of 586 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the last King from the line of David and destroyed the Temple, taking away the Ark of the Covenant and the other holy items connected to Moses.

 

It seemed that God had either turned his back on the covenant he had made with his people or that he was powerless to save them. Either of these options, that Israel was abandoned by God or that God was not ruler over all creation, would mean the end of the religion that gave meaning and purpose to the national life of the Jewish people. It would leave them without any reason to continue as a separate and distinct nation, it would be the end of the worship of their God, who was, they believed the one and only true God, whose intention was to bring all nations to peace and prosperity through recognition of his law.

 

What they did instead was to find a way, or a number of ways, to hold fast to faith in God through all their troubles. Central to this was the recognition that being chosen by God as his people was not simply a matter of privilege. It was also a burden. To be those elected to represent God to the world and the world to God demanded high standards, they had to be worthy and proper representatives. To fail in this was to remove a key element in God’s plan to put right all that was wrong. Manasseh did not just fail, he did things that were the opposite of what was required. He trampled over central aspects of Israel’s covenantal obligations to be the bridge of God and world.

 

They thought and wrote on the basis that their faith in God, and their determination to fulfil the role that God has assigned to them, would be the way to understand their history. What happened had to fit the ideas that God was both good and powerful and that they had work to do for God. That Jerusalem was conquered because of the sins of its kings, and above all Manasseh, was one very important version of this seeking for a way to hold on to faith, although not the only one.

 

So why should we care about this theological work done on behalf of the faith of Israel 2,500 years ago? How does it help us to see the writers of these Old Testament books pin the blame on a villainous king from 100 years or so before the conquest and at least 150 years before they wrote about him?

 

There are two ways that this matters to us. First of all we have to remember that calling Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, refers to his standing in the line of the kings of Judah descended from David. Jesus is the one who revives the special role that the house of David played in God’s plan for the redemption of the world, but in a new way and on a new level. What Manasseh destroyed is renewed by Jesus. To understand our Saviour properly we have to understand this part of his sending.

 

Secondly, and more importantly here and now, this response to the fall of Jerusalem reminds us what it is to be faithful to the calling we have had from God. In representing God to the world we are responsible, more than anything else, for proclaiming hope. Our world is not yet the world that God wants it to be. God does not want suffering, death, disease, despair and war. God wants peace and God wants justice, God wants life and God wants love. God wants these things for all of us and God wants these things for us now. That is the message we are given to proclaim. That is the good news, the gospel, that Jesus brings. When he says that the Kingdom of God is at hand he means that nearby, close to us, in time and in space, is the fully realised rule of God, in which justice will at last be done, when we will all receive what we God wants to give, completely and absolutely.

 

It’s hard to keep believing this and to keep proclaiming it when through the years, the centuries and the millennia the good continue to suffer and the wicked continue to prosper. But that is what we have been given to do. We are given the task of remaining joyful and hopeful throughout all that happens. It is up to us to deny that the universe is indifferent or even hostile to human well being, to assert that creation will ultimately be transformed by God’s love so that all is well.

 

The great problem posed for us by evil and suffering is not so much explaining it, or even justifying God, although these are things we should attempt to do. The great problem is remaining faithful to the vision of a world made new, of God’s rule of love. We have, if we are to be the Church we are called to be, to remain steadfast in our proclamation that a good and powerful God loves his creatures and will bring them, at last, safely home.

 

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Potters Bar 21 July 2013: The authority of the Bible (Josh 1:7-9, 2 Kings 22:8-11, 2 Tim 3:14-17)

The Bible tells a story, or a nest of stories. It also contains some codes of law. It gives ethical advice about a whole range of things. It has some theological and philosophical sections. There’s some poetry, some self-contained short stories, a set of four biographies of the same man who is claimed to be God. There are letters, history books and accounts of visions. The Bible is a collection of books of a lot of different kinds.

 

It is also, according to the main constitutional document of the United Reformed Church, its Basis of Union, the “highest authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people” when it is “discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”.

 

What that means is something about which Christians, or even members of the URC, find it extremely difficult to agree. After all the Bible was written at various periods, none less than 1900 years ago, by and for people living in times very different from ours.

 

This difficulty is made worse when passages inside the Bible itself, like the one we heard from 2 Timothy this morning, are made the basis for the claim that the Bible should be the highest authority. We should listen to the Bible because the Bible tells us we that should is not on the face of it a very strong argument and it gets even harder to justify when particular parts of the Bible seem to be separated from the rest and made into a rule book we should follow, banning some things and enforcing others.

 

As we’ve heard this morning there are quite a few places where written texts are referred to within the story. We heard from Joshua about a Book of the Law that was in use before the end of the journey from Egypt to the promised land, so let’s say 1200 years before Christ. We’ve heard from 2 Kings about the discovery of a Book of the Law in the Temple around 600 years later. We’ve heard from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, written between 20 and 50 years after Jesus’ death about the importance and function of Scripture.

 

One of the things this reminds us of is that the book was built up in stages, over time, in the middle of the story it tells. The Bible hasn’t always existed and took the form we know it in quite recently, at the Reformation. The Bible in use in the Roman Catholic Church contains a number of Old Testament books excluded from the Protestant Bible and the Eastern Orthodox churches recognise some more books again. The Scripture Paul wrote about was mostly an Old Testament that probably looked most like the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament and almost certainly contained little if anything we see in our New Testament. The Bible has a history as well telling and reflecting on a history.

 

At the same time each of us, as Christians has our own life story and the Church as a whole has a history and the Bible fits into those stories. In all honesty I’d have to say that it didn’t have a much of a role in my life until I started training for ministry. I came to faith partly by reading books by those for whom Christianity was important and seeing how it made sense in their thinking and their lives, and the Bible wasn’t mentioned all that much in those books. The rest of my journey was moved along by relationships with people and participation in congregations. For many of you, I’m sure, being brought up in the Church or friendships with people it it were more important than study of the Bible. In fact I have to confess that my first real experience of the Bible itself, reading Mark’s gospel as I prepared to be received into the Church in the late 1990s rather put me off. The story was too wild, too strange, too alien for me at that time.

 

What’s more I have always found it hard to argue we should simply obey laws and rules of behaviour developed more than 2000 years ago in societies which were so fundamentally different than our and not, to my eyes, obviously better, indeed in many ways obviously worse.

 

So I don’t think that the authority of the Bible is the same as the authority of the law of the land. It is not primarily a set of rules that say you must do these things and must not do these other things or else these things will be done to you. Some parts of it were that kind of thing when Israel was a kingdom but we don’t live under those laws today.

 

Nor do I think it is the same kind of thing as scientific text books, which have the authority that comes from the best scientific minds agreeing that one lot of theories give the best description and explanation of what we see happening in the world around us. I accept, for example, that theories of evolution are the best way of understanding the variety and character of life on our planet and think that trying to oppose the Genesis account to it, or even to find ways of making them fit together as explanations is to miss the point of what the Bible is.

 

What the Bible is, above all, is a record of and attempt to make sense of and bring to life the experience of God’s revelation of himself to those chosen by him to represent him in a world that has lost the ability to know his love directly. Sometimes that revelation took the form of legal codes. Sometimes it took the form of the inspiration of rituals and forms of worship. Sometimes it took the form of prophetic inspiration of individuals who spoke about the signs of the times. Sometimes it was the kind of wisdom expressed in proverbs and sayings. Sometimes God made himself known directly in the history of the kingdoms of Israel.

 

In all these forms people were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down what they had known of God or known from God. This is the God-breathing that we heard about in 2 Timothy, the work of the Spirit in leading people to witness to what they have known about God.

 

It’s authority comes from that, from our belief that in it we can come to be part of a long story, the long story of God’s work to save the world and bring it into its proper relationship to him. We believe that a special role in that story was assigned to first the chosen people descended from Abraham and Isaac, then to those chosen to be called into the Church.

 

We also believe that this role reached its climax with the coming of Jesus as the Christ, the one who was God the Son and also the perfect human being, showing us the way to be and transforming God’s relationship with us through his redeeming work, above all on the cross.

 

The authority of the Bible lies in its being the place in the world where God’s salvation of us is recorded and made known to us. In it we can hear about and come to know about the Jesus who we can also meet in the Church and especially in the sacraments.

 

The Bible’s authority is not that of a book of law, that’s a human institution, sometimes inspired by God but not God himself. It is not the authority of a set of theories or ideas about anything, not even ideas about God. It is the authority of its being the place above all where we can have a conversation with God himself, a conversation that has a lot of subjects and a lot of different moods but which enables us to get to know the one who made us, who gives us all we have, and who promises that all will be well.