Posts Tagged ‘Creation’

Scripture in service of abuse

August 24, 2019

Pentecost 11 – 2019
Luke 13:10-17
Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Here’s a question: “Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments and, if you did, did you realise that they differ in regard to keeping the sabbath?”

As you know, the Ten Commandments are given to Moses when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. When at last they are about to enter the promised land, Moses reminds the people of all that has happened since God led them out of Egypt. In this second version, Moses changes the fourth commandment and provides a different reason for “observing the sabbath and keeping it holy”. Unless it is pointed out to us, we might not notice the difference because, apart from a slight rearrangement of words the two versions are the same apart from the justification. So, when Moses receives the commandments the creation story is given as the basis for sabbath keeping. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8) Moses’ farewell speech as recorded in Deuteronomy emphasises the liberation of Israel from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut 5:15)

The two explanations complement rather than contradict each other. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day of creation God blessed and hallowed the day. We are not to understand that God was exhausted, but rather that God was taking the time to revel in all that God had made. The sabbath was intended to be a day of delight, a time to appreciate God’s gifts and to allow oneself to be held in and by the presence of God.

Deuteronomy recounts the tale of liberation– from Egypt, through the wilderness to the present – and God’s role in bringing the people from slavery to freedom in the promised land. Not surprisingly, the sabbath is associated with redemption. It is set aside as a constant reminder that God has set the people from free from slavery – from everything that limits or prevents human flourishing.

The sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people – a day in which to delight in God’s blessings or to remember with gratitude the freedom God has won for them. “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”.

So far so good, but around 613 BCE it seems that people began to worry about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy, in particular what did it mean to “do no work”. The attempt to define “work” produced rules and regulations that were so detailed and unwieldy with the result that, rather than being a day of rest (of delight or redemption), the sabbath became a day of anxious concern that one or other rule might inadvertently be broken.

It is in this context that we have to read this morning’s gospel. What appears at first glance as a healing story is in reality a story that primarily serves to illustrate the disagreement between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue with regard to the observation of the sabbath. (A debate that is very much in the public domain as we can see through the reaction of the observers). It appears that the synagogue leader views the sabbath commandment through a very narrow and literal lens. He believes (as Jesus points out) that an ox or a donkey can be unloosed and led to water on the sabbath, but because the law has nothing to say on the matter, he refuses to accept that a woman who is bound can similarly be set free on the sabbath in order to be able to make the most of her life.

Jesus has no such difficulty. Informed by both versions of the fourth commandment and by using the refinements that have been added to it, Jesus looses the woman from that which binds her. He liberates her from her ailment, from the ungodly power that has her in its thrall and he sets her free to stand tall and to live life to the full. Surely on this day of redemption, this is the way in which to understand the commandment. The woman is freed to delight in creation – which she does by immediately standing and praising God. The sabbath is the perfect day on which to set someone free!

It is no longer the sabbath law that is misinterpreted and misused. During the course of my own lifetime the church has been forced to acknowledge that our inherited laws had become laws that had power to oppress and even to destroy the lives of many. Battered women were sent home to abusive husbands because of Jesus’ injunction against divorce. Children have been subject to abuse because they were taught not “to talk back” to adults or worse that they had to “honour their father and their mother”. Gay men and women continue to be denigrated and excluded and denied the comfort and joy of being in relationship with one another because the bible says one thing or another.

We must always be on our guard against rigid interpretations of our faith that limit rather than encourage others. It is my belief that scripture should be read through the lens of God’s love and compassion, God’s inclusion of the marginalised and God’s desire for all people to be made whole. The lesson to be learned from today’s and other controversy stories in the New Testament is that scripture can be used as much to bind as to liberate and that the bible can be used as a tool of abuse as readily as it can be used as an instrument of compassion and respect.

Scripture is a tool for liberation and not for oppression. Let us pray that we will never find ourselves guilty of using scripture to limit, to bind or to repress, but only to encourage, to set free and to enliven.

The heavens torn asunder

January 10, 2015

Baptism of Jesus – 2015

Mark 1:4-11 (Genesis 1:1-8)

Marian Free

May my spoken word, lead us through the written Word, to encounter the Living Word, even Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

It is difficult to let go of the idea that heaven is above us and that hell – if such a place exists – is below. Even though modern science has revealed the vastness of the universe, and even though we know that the nearest star is light years away, most of us still think of heaven as somewhere above the sky. One reason for such a view is that our image of heaven is formed by our biblical texts that in turn are dependent on a view of the world that dominated in ancient times. In this period of time, it was believed that the earth sat on pillars above the waters below and that the sky was a vast dome that held back the waters above. The sun, moon and stars hung from this dome and the rain fell through holes in the dome.

In Hebrew the word for this dome is raqia. This is the same word that is used for God’s chariot or for the platform for God’s throne. It seems that in Hebrew thought the sky – what was for them the roof of the earth – was for God the floor of heaven. That is not to say that they understood God to be confined to heaven or that they thought that the dome was impermeable, preventing movement in either direction. After all, God had conversations with Abraham and Moses spoke to God face-to-face. It does seem however, that communication between God and humankind generally occurred through individuals such as the patriarchs or the prophets or through intermediaries such as angels. In any event, over time the communication between heaven and earth became ritualized and instead of communication being a two-way conversation, it was limited to an action that took place once a year – first of all in the tent of meeting and then in the Temple.

The design of these places of worship is important, in particular the separation of the sanctuary, which is the place of meeting. In Exodus God says to Moses: “And have them make me a sanctuary. There I will meet you and I will give you all my commands for the Israelites.” Moses used to meet God in the sanctuary on a regular basis but, according to the Book of Leviticus this place, which was separated by a curtain from the remainder of the tent of meeting, was considered so holy that it was only entered once and year and then only by the current High Priest. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies surrounded by a cloud of incense that would prevent him from seeing God. Inside the sanctuary he would sprinkle blood on and before the mercy seat. This was to cleanse the tent of the sins of the people and to make it possible for God to continue to dwell in their midst. It was not a conversation between the priest and God as it had been in Moses’ day. The Temple, when it was built, was built on the same design as the Tent of meeting. Again the sanctuary was separated from the inner court by a curtain and entered only once a year by the High Priest. The relationship between God and the people at this time was not personal but formal and dictated by ritual.

All of this background information is essential if we are to understand Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

Mark tells us that as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn asunder and hears the voice of God saying: “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” It is true that in this account only Jesus sees the heavens torn and hears the voice of God, but Mark’s audience hear the words as if they too see and hear, and the implication of what is happening is not lost on them. The violent tearing of the heavens suggests to them that the barrier that existed between them and heaven has been broken irreparably. The dome is no longer intact. God has broken through into the world and nothing will ever be the same. From now on the way in which God communicates with the world will be radically different. God will be accessible to all people, not to just a few.

That this is Mark’s intended meaning is made clear at the conclusion of the gospel when another violent tearing destroys the curtain in the Temple – that which had separated the people from the sanctuary. Mark records that when Jesus took his last breath, the veil (curtain) in the Temple was torn from top to bottom making clear that no longer is communication with God limited to just one person just once a year. All people now have access to and can communicate directly with God.

Even though Mark does not record Jesus’ birth, in only a few verses he makes it obvious that in Jesus, God has radically entered the world. God’s heaven has been opened in a way that could not previously have been imagined and the violence of the opening suggests that it will not easily be closed again. The barriers (real or perceived) between earth and heaven have been destroyed. All of humanity is now able to speak directly to God without the need of an intermediary.

God has done everything possible to open channels of communication with us. It is up to us to make good use of them.

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