Pump up the Bass! …the essential Old Testament

Back in the 1970`s a book was published called `Jesus the Jew`*. Looking back on it now it`s clear that both the title and the contents of the book were a statement of the obvious (Jesus is Jewish) but at the time its publication served to draw attention to how far mainstream Christianity had drifted from its all too significant Jewish roots; and I think there`s no better example of this than what we can only describe as our basic neglect of the Old Testament Scriptures.

Part of the issue may just be the fact we us the word `Old` …. which of course, is just a short step from implying that it no longer has any contemporary relevance but my point is that we would be wrong to think that… very wrong indeed. So why should we bother with the Old Testament?

Well putting it very simply, because Jesus bothered with it. It`s the Bible that Jesus knew in his formative days. It shaped his prayer, his teaching and his ministry. He came to understand himself and the mission he had because of that long history of God`s people the Jews. So the Old Testament puts us in touch with Christian origins it brings to our attention that bigger story of which we are part.

To put it another way, somebody once said: `The Old Testament is the soil in which the New Testament is planted`. What he meant was that for instance, a good proportion of the terms used in the New Testament can`t be understood without reference to the Old. So, if you`ve never heard about the Jewish Temple and the sacrifices there when Jesus is referred to as the `lamb of God` you won`t get it; all you`re really left with is something fluffy and cute grazing on the hillside.

The next thing is that Old Testament counters our rampant individualism. Anyone who has read the Old Testament would never say, “You don`t have to go to Church to be a Christian”. (Actually, anyone who`s read the New Testament wouldn`t say that either….! ) But the Old Testament leaves no room for doubt that our faith is about being part of a community of people; created by God; wrestling with him; often faltering in our response but being shaped into those who will live lives worthy of him.

The question for this community as I`m always saying is, “If God is God, how then shall we live?” And that community is that place where together we seek the re-shaping; the re-imaging of our lives and of the world. That`s what the 10 Commandments (which we`ll be exploring this Autumn) are largely about; how life (our lives) can be lived in response to this God. And of course, a major part of the Old Testament is the story of that community. We get a picture of what it was like over generations and in different contexts to be engaged by him. And here`s the thing: this tells us, most importantly that faith is not about ideas but history. God in the here and now.

You see in the Old Testament, the one who has created and called us is not set at a distance but here in the midst of it all. This truth reaches its culmination in the birth of Christ – `God with us` but this conviction is at the heart of everything you will read in the Old Testament. There`s no more potent example of this than in the story of the Exodus; the account of how God liberated his people from slavery. But the key point is that it`s THE LORD who is doing the liberating. The whole accent in the story is that HE is the major player in the peoples` life.

Today (Exodus 5) we heard of Moses and Aaron going to Pharoah and asking for leave to go and worship the Lord; at which point Pharoah throws a huff. He says, “I don`t know this God of yours”. He accuses the Israelites of laziness and turns up the heat- makes them work harder to serve his economy; he wants to grind them down and convince them that their religion is useless and their God an illusion. And so everyone turns on Moses and Aaron for stirring things up; and then Moses turns to the Lord and says, “‘O LORD, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.’ “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh…”

It`s great stuff. Now we can pass by and think it`s all very interesting (I remember hearing that at school.. I do wish they` teach that to the children these days… ) And off we go, totally missing the point that this is about YOU and ME…. now. It`s trying to tell us something very important about this thing called faith.

Here in the midst of a pretty dire, life-and-death situation, where the peoples` jobs and pensions were all on the line; here in the midst of all this stuff there is a really lively dialogue going on between the Lord and his people.

I know for some people it`s a bit intellectually embarrassing to think of the Lord in this way; and it`s politically inconvenient to think that the Lord might have a view on excessive working hours and the way exiles and migrants are treated but whenever we side-line the Old Testament we are only a short step from a somewhat anaemic faith; a faith in which God is conveniently an absentee landlord rather than a `player` with whom we must reckon.

Of course the standard excuse for not bothering with the Old Testament is the old cliché that it`s full of wrath and violence. In fairness that`s usually said by people who`ve never read it anyway… and it`s largely mistaken but in any case I often think, “What`s your problem?” So, the Old Testament contains passion and blood and guts. So did the News yesterday evening! I just can`t help thinking that if I read my Old Testament a bit more I wouldn`t be so inclined to look at those News reports and wonder where God is. If the Lord God is depicted as being in the midst of all that mess well I find that heartening. I say again we see this in its fullness when we look at the life of Christ … He is up to his neck in the world`s pain but it`s in the Old Testament where the ground work is done. Unless you begin there you`ll never get a hold on how `earthed` our God really is.

Yes, of course we have to reckon with the `violence` in God; it`s a puzzling feature of the Old Testament and the Lord comes across very often as a perplexing character to deal with ……but that perplexity serves to emphasise His freedom… He is not in our pocket and we cannot see the whole picture. And it all has an echo in the New Testament passages where Christ constantly misunderstood; perplexing all and sundry. And yes, he occasionally vents his spleen. We don`t like to dwell on those moments where, for instance, he rages at the Pharisees but if he gets steamed up well maybe he has a right to. Maybe he`s inviting us to think about how coy we`ve become; how devoid of passion.

That`s why I find it all so energising that in our reading this morning, Moses comes before the Lord and just tells it like it is. We learn that there`s nothing irreverent in straight-talking prayer as long as we`re prepared to hear some equally straight-talking in reply. I suppose it concerns me that the default situation for so many of us is; if life`s difficult… “Well I`m not bothering with this religion anymore”; whereas the Jewish response is to get on and tell the Lord about it. That`s why so many of the Psalms are ones of lament and protest ….. these are written by people who see life`s perplexity not as the occasion for the severing of a relationship but a deeper understanding of what that relationship is really about. I say again, this is where the Old Testament takes us …….and without it we end up with a rather anaemic faith; and let`s be honest a faith that can`t embrace darkness and perplexity isn`t worthy of the name.

Now, somebody said recently that if you want to summarize or describe what Christian faith looks like in many places today; he said you could do so in three words. We have ended up, he said with “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism” What he basically meant was we have distorted and diminished our faith so that firstly, it`s all about morals (telling people what they shouldn`t do). Secondly, it`s all about therapy (Meeting my needs) and thirdly it`s about Deism (which is where you have a picture of God as the absentee Landlord who has left us to muddle on as best we can). It seems to me that all three of these pitfalls are what happens when we neglect the robust, passionate and yes perplexing vision of faith we find in the Old Testament.

Or let me give you a picture. On the average Radio, or CD player you have dials that control the tone of what you hear. Mostly you`ve got treble and bass. If you turn down the base and turn up the treble you can still recognise what you`re listening to but you know it`s not all there. Christian faith without the Old Testament is like music that is all treble. You can recognise it but it`s really not the full story. You don`t get the full effect; it isn`t `earthed` and because it lacks bass it`s a bit shrill.

*Geza Vermes. `Jesus the Jew` (SCM 1973)


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