This is a sermon I preached on Sunday 24th April 2016. The readings were:
I love reading the Bible. That’s just as well, really, otherwise the Church of Scotland would have cause to seriously worry about its decision to let me train as a Reader.
I love it for many reasons; I love the hope that it shows us, I love the endless instructions to love others, I love the amazing poetry of the Psalms, I love the comedic moments (there’s actually a talking donkey in here! It’s brilliant!) and, of course, I particularly love reading about the life and teachings of Jesus. This collection of 66 books, letters and poetry collections is a rich, wonderful mixture of all good the things God has in store for us.
The problem is that, as much as I love reading all the good stuff, on many occasions I’m left scratching my head, wondering how this book with all of these great examples of a loving God, can also seemingly justify so much suffering, legalism, violence and death. God seems to be wrathful and angry a lot of the time, punishing people in incredibly severe ways, and directing them to awful acts. Many opponents of Christianity seize on these things as examples of how the Bible, far from being a book of love and hope, is actually an outdated and irrelevant book of hatred and oppression, and should be ridiculed and ignored as such.
To be sure, a cursory look at much of the Old Testament would seem to support this view. On many occasions God tells his people to commit genocide and other (by today’s standards) heinous acts of violence whilst binding them up in ridiculously stringent laws.
Here’s an example for you. Leviticus 11 gives laws regarding clean and unclean foods,
“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Say to the Israelites: “Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: you may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud. ‘ “There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. ‘ “Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. ‘ “These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat. ‘ “All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, cricket, cicada or grass-hopper. But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean. ‘ “You will make yourselves unclean by these; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. Whoever picks up one of their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. ‘ “Every animal that does not have a divided hoof or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you; whoever touches the carcass of any of them will be unclean. Of all the animals that walk on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. These animals are unclean for you. ‘ “Of the animals that move along the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. Of all those that move along the ground, these are unclean for you. Whoever touches them when they are dead will be unclean till evening.”
This chapter was read, in its entirety, at a readers in training conference I went to last year and the room was filled with a lot of very serious faces. Mainly because everybody, including the reader and the person who chose it for that session, we’re trying hard not to laugh. I really hope I’m not struck down by lightning for saying that! Seriously, though, there’s no denying that it sounds utterly ridiculous to our ears now. But why? Why do these laws seem so strange to us and some of the actions in the Bible seem so unacceptable to us, yet we use this as the basis for the faith through which we live our lives, claiming that it is a book, and faith, of peace and love.
I work in financial services, specifically, I work in pensions and annuities.
Please try not to fall asleep!
Part of my job is to train people to deal with new kinds of work. Once the period of training is done they start performing the work, but they aren’t expected to do it as fast as experienced people, or get as many cases right, or to do it without a lot of support. They go through a period where they are still learning as they work, getting a bit of leeway as they do so as they can’t possibly be expected to be perfect in their work straight from day one. But gradually that leeway is reduced until, once they are competent in their job, the expectation becomes for them to carry out the job as well and as quickly as people who have been doing it for a long time.
That is what the Bible is like. Remember that God had wiped out humanity, barring the family of Noah, due to the level of sin in the world. He had scattered them and made them speak in different languages when they decided to build a tower so high they could become like gods. He had considered wiping out Israel and starting again with Moses when, despite rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, they made a golden bull and worshipped it.
Humanity was so sinful, so far from God, that He needed to account for it in the way he dealt with them. One example of this is the apparent acceptance of slavery. Robert Keay in this month’s Christianity magazine talks of the Bible seemingly allowing slavery, saying,
“Slavery can exist only in the world of fallen, sinful humans; it will surely not exist in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated and will reach fulfilment in the future. It is right for Christians to seek abolition, despite previous biblical allowances due to accommodations to human sinfulness. Such allowances were not expressions of God’s ultimate intention for humanity, but expressions of his patience and wisdom in dealing with hard heartedness and moving people towards genuine humanity as was most fully revealed in Jesus.”
In other words, humans were so sinful, so broken, that they were totally unable to live a life even approaching the way God designed them to live, so he had to make allowances. Allowances which were gradually reduced as people moved closer to the time that they would have Jesus with them, as the demonstration of true humanity.
The same goes for the laws. The less likely or able you are to be able to do something, the more support and guidance you need. The laws were there because step by step instructions were needed in every area of life, from how to live in relationship with God and others to basic hygiene and farming rules for their own protection. It’s a bit like the old school rules we had to live by. The reason you don’t run in the corridors isn’t because teachers are picky (they are wonderful human beings with impeccable taste in marriage partners!) but it’s because children seem to love running everywhere and corridors are narrow and crowded; if you run down a busy corridor you are very likely to bump into people, knock folk over and hurt them, or yourself. In other words, it’s dangerous. Adults know this now, but when we were 10 or 11 we needed to be told, otherwise we’d just go haring off, leaving scattered bodies in our wake. We don’t have it as a rule in adult life because we know it’s dangerous, so we just don’t do it..
When Jesus came, these laws were no longer needed. Not because they were wrong, but because people had moved on enough to be able to live in the manner which the laws were directing them. The law was still in place, Jesus himself said that not a single stroke of the pen would disappear, but we are ready to live in the spirit of the law as it is written on our hearts, not on papyrus. Instead, Jesus had come to fulfil the law, showing us what all of the law pointed to, him as the perfect example of God designed humanity.
People were still sinful. The reading we heard from John’s Gospel is from immediately after Judas left the last supper in order to betray Jesus and includes Jesus telling Peter that he would deny his Lord, so there is no escaping sin even here. But humanity was ready, it had grown, matured, moved further in its relationship with God. However, it still needed Jesus to be that final, central piece of the puzzle. We had gone as far as laws would allow, we had moved past the time where any more allowances for our sin could be given, we needed Jesus’ teachings of love and justice and we needed his death and resurrection, to finally see what we were meant to be.
That is why Peter was told to kill and eat all of that forbidden, previously unclean food. It showed how the laws which were so restrictive had led to untold freedom. It helped Peter to see that Gentiles were to be included in this new kingdom of God, and for him to persuade others of that. I do love the idea of him sitting down to a meal of roast screech owl and monitor lizard. I reckon he may have decided to stick with kosher food after that.
It’s so easy to pick bits out of the Bible to make it look like whatever kind of book you want. We are all guilty of this, and atheists and fundamentalists can be particularly adept at it. But when you look at the whole thing, the entire story of God’s developing relationship with humanity, his crowning creation, the one made in his own image, you see one of a father helping his child to crawl, then walk, then run towards becoming the person he knows he can become. You see him discipline his people when they go wrong, support them in times of trouble, guide them in times of uncertainty, making allowances for their immaturity whilst helping them towards maturity. Finally, he shows them, in coming to Earth himself in the person of Jesus, what being human is really all about.
And it all works towards that wonderful reading from Revelation. The goal, the culmination of all that work over those thousands of years, is a “new heaven and a new earth”, where God will live amongst his people, making everything new. He will lead us to that paradise we read of him creating in the very beginning. All the pain, suffering, mourning and crying our sin causes will be gone and it will just be him and us in the Holy City forever.
This book is so much more than we could possibly describe. God is so much more than our limited minds could possibly imagine. But if we really look, stop worrying about the bits which don’t look so good to us at first glance, and delve into the whole story; past, present and future; we discover just how rich and exciting life is really supposed to be.