Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)
Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’. Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant. The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.
Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ. Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:
- undesirable. The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”. God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’. There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least. But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
- unbearable. The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”. Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
- unapproachable. Animals stoned, sandals removed. The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are. It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.
By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.
- better joy. The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke. Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek. Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
- better transformation. The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently. Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
- better memory. The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin. The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.
In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture. God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.
It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ. As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts. Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.
But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth. Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).
Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:
On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”
It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off. Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away? I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper. The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned. Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?
Do you trust? Do you believe?
I’m not talking (at least in this post!) about God – I’m talking about convicted criminals!
Tapu Misa has written another thought-provoking piece about –among other things– the house-arrest conditions of Bailey Kurariki, suggesting that the public needs to trust him to learn how to live in society.
Continue reading trust and believe… criminals!?
The Romans 1:1-17 targum wasn’t enough…
…I had to post this one as well…
Again, I advise reading these two simple verses in an easy-to-read translation before reading the targum…
In case it’s not obvious, Walsh is anything but a typical ‘republican-style’ Christian…
If this doesn’t stir your heart, check your pulse… Continue reading brian walsh: targum of Romans 12:1-2
It’s just not what you read in the newest self-help books.
It’s completely contrary to every trend in society. We adjust grading methods to make students feel better about themselves. We say that everyone is special and don’t stop to consider that by saying that, we make no one special. (this is well illustrated in the brilliant movie-cartoon: The Incredibles) Why do we do this? What’s the deal?
So many of the belief-systems in the world struggle to deal with the condition of humanity. I think this is very interesting. The fact that humans are bent on selfishness is quite possibly the easiest truth to demonstrate! We all hide our wrong and promote our good. Yes, even in churches! We look for the fastest lane in traffic, and the shortest line at the grocery store. We’re always looking out for our own best interests!
I love Christianity for many reasons, one of which is it’s realness. Jesus wasn’t out to flatter humanity. His disposition with humankind is very succinctly described by His half-brother James, who wrote that God “opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
One of Jesus’ most striking message to humanity was that we aren’t good enough. He raised the ‘bar’ of morality so high that nobody would be able to say they were good. That is why Jesus was always barking at the Pharisees! He called them white-washed tombs, and made no ‘bones’ (pardon the pun) about how he felt about their self-righteousness! In sharp contrast, He forgives and welcomes sinners who are repentant and aware of their moral bankruptcy. The Apostle Paul echoes Jesus’ message in passages like the third chapter of Romans, where he quotes various passages in the Psalms: “There is none righteous, no, not one… none who seeks after God… they have together become unprofitable (see title of this article)… etc., etc.
As Christians, our confidence is NEVER in ourselves. Not in the past, not now, and not in the future. We were never good enough, we are still not good enough and we will never be good enough! The technical-theological definition of grace is undeserved favour. Take a good guess why it is undeserved. Because we can’t earn it, and we don’t earn it!
Why are so many Christians BORED with the Christian life? I think we have forgotten just how BIG a deal God’s grace is!
May we live in the awe of God’s grace to the point where we see for ourselves just how ‘amazing’ it really is.
This week, I want to focus on ‘realness’ in our Christian lives. Let’s be honest, most of the time, Christianity is a dog-and-pony show where the ‘most spiritual’ award goes to the one with the least sin, and the biggest smile on Sunday morning. Is that the goal? Is that even reality? Is that what Jesus had in mind for the church? I think not.
We need to be open and honest with each other. I look at a church (not the building or the time spent in the building, but people) as a HOSPITAL. Hospitals are full of people that are hurting. Hospitals are places where people go to have their wounds healed. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if an injured person went to a hospital and the doctors and nurses were appalled and disgusted by the wounds they had?
“I’m sorry, miss, but we don’t allow bleeding here, can you please cover that wound? It’s making many of the others uncomfortable.”
Is this not what we do in our churches? Sure, we give much lip service to the idea of being a place of healing, but secretly, we wish for good, clean, sin-less, happy, European, comfortable church members that are more ‘like us.’ I desire to be the kind of Christian that people know they can come to when they are hurting.
This week, ask the Holy Spirit two questions…
1. Am I the kind of person people can confess sins to? Can people be ‘real’ with me?
2. Am I confessing my sins (specific) to anyone? Am I being ‘real’ with others?
May our lives and our churches be hospitals of mercy and clinics of grace…
In His Grace,