Communication and Connection: Our relationship with God’s Word
From the readings for today:
God the Father speaks through his prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 55: v 10 – 11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my Word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
God the Son speaks through his disciple, John:
John 5: v 37 – 38 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his Word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.
Welcome to our celebration of the Bible this Sunday…we can marvel afresh at this
astonishing anthology of 66 books written by over 40 authors across 1500 years, the most massive ‘best-seller’ and influencer of all time, a multi-cultural, multi-translated epic with a singularly cohesive view of God, his works, our relationship, his Marshall plan to rescue humanity from their exile of sin and build back his kingdom. Our readings today highlight this existential interaction of God and his people through Old Testament prophecy AND New
Testament works during a specific incident of Jesus’ ministry.
We benefit from having both parts of the Bible as we know it since about 400 AD, compiled from the Old Testament, finished some 300 years or so before the birth of Jesus; and the New Testament, finished within 90 years of his death and resurrection. The Bible arrived on our shores painstakingly hand-scribed in Latin translation, accessible only to those with education and wealth. In the 7th century, the Northumbrian monk and historian, Bede, translated the first scripture into Old English – the gospel of John. Not until the 14th century
was the entire Bible translated into English by John Wycliffe, a master at Oxford University. Unlicensed possession of the Bible in English was soon banned by law enforced with the death penalty, and the work of translation went underground in our native tongue. Although at the time, translations in all other major European languages were available on the continent. In the 16th century, William Tyndale, an Oxbridge scholar, translated and published scripture in English from Antwerp and Hamburg, drawing upon his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and later smuggling the volumes into England. The most complete, the
“Matthew Bible” of 1537 is widely cited as the foundation of the King James Version. Sadly, the year before its publication Tyndale was arrested and executed for heresy, having offended King Henry VIII as well as broken the law against translating and publishing the scriptures in English.
It is worth remembering that possessing and distributing the Bible, in whole or in part, is dangerous unto death in some parts of the world; it required extraordinary faith and commitment to do so in our own country up to early modern times. Perhaps today’s portion of John chapter 5, an assertive, legalistic and difficult passage, in some ways foreign to us in its content and structure, can illuminate why. Allow me to set the scene for a master class on the power of God’s word delivered by its embodiment, the incarnate son of God who is the
subject of its witness from Genesis through Revelations, the Old Testament as well as the New.
We are in Jerusalem, in the Temple district just inside the Sheep Gate (now called the Lion Gate; it is pleasing to ponder that Jesus entered as the lamb of God and ascended as the triumphant lion of Zion, an inversion of the month of March adage…) It is Sabbath during a Festival, and we are by the pool of Bethesda, a mikvah or ritual bath where the sick and suffering also came for healing; excavations have revealed its construction to mirror the Ezekiel Chapter 47 passage on Healing Waters, with a deep, stepped pool for immersion and
a linked, higher pool as reservoir to feed it so that the waters were ever live from source, bounded indeed by 5 porticos just as John reports in his gospel.
Jesus is there, along with the Temple community and throngs of fellow Jews, casting his compassionate gaze on hopeful invalids waiting their turn by the pool, before he approaches one man who clearly had been in a bad way for a long time to ask if he wants to be healed. In short order, upon Jesus’ command, the man rises, picks up his mat and walks off once again whole in body…Jesus stops him later with the reminder to avoid sin in order to remain so. There is a sermon to be had about spiritual paralysis and divine therapeutic method, but it is not our text or focus today. What is pertinent is the fact Jesus broke Sabbath law: healing and carrying were both forbidden as work. He did this openly, in a holy place on a holy day and with multitudes as witness, acts sufficient for Jesus to be persecuted in public, then and there. And so this transpired on the spot.
Jesus is more than adequate to his own defence and doubles down on these affronts to law and authority by committing the ultimate offence: he made himself equal with God when he told them that yes, he works on the Sabbath because his Father is always at work; what he sees his Father do, he also does. Like Father, like son. In the eyes of the Pharisees this is outright blasphemy, outrageous distain for tradition and law, punishable with death by
stoning outside the city walls. In a heartbeat, they upped the ante from verbal abuse and public chastisement to conviction and condemnation to death.
Perhaps the violence of the intention to put Jesus on trial and then to death strikes the modern reader as excessive. Let us painfully recall that in our day, trial by hateful social media posts and on-line radicalisation has real power to murder and foment riot and insurrection yet is largely unregulated. It is true that in Judea of that time, a judicial procedure within religious law could be convened immediately and held anywhere. Although were a capital judgment
handed down, the crucifixion demonstrates that the Roman rulers reserve the right to execute. Furthermore the Mishnah or oral Torah which includes a compilation of laws and their application, provides the accused with the right to the testimony of minimum 2 to 3 witnesses on their behalf. What is also different to our experience of trial is if the testimony of the accused and their witnesses prevail, then the accuser could become the one found in breach of the law and suffer the appropriate consequences. Jesus would understand that their
position was far less potent than the Pharisees would have liked, and he could outwit them at their own litigious game.
Thus we arrive at the start of our passage, a masterful monologue for the defence as Jesus summons three star witnesses: John the Baptist, sent by the Father to prepare the way for Jesus (tick); the works the Father has sent Jesus to do – miracles, healings, raising from the dead, commanding the water (tick); and God the father himself who commends his son in every letter of the Hebrew scriptures (tick) …shaping our recognition of divine presence, love and care…foreshadowing redemption by prophesying the coming of the Messiah.
Logical, then, that this sermon’s spotlight text accuses the Pharisees of being blind to his glory and deaf to God’s word in the scrolls they study; in the laws, messianic texts and history set down by Moses in the Pentateuch; in the incarnate son of God turning their own laws against them and finding them sadly wanting.
Jesus then moves through his counter-charges to deliver the rest of his knock-out accusations:
You think you can study your way to eternal life without believing in or coming to me.
You will believe any third party with a message you want to hear and reject the one with the
Father’s full authority and evidence.
You may have texts in your head, but you do not have the love of God in your hearts.
You glorify each other instead of seeking the glory that comes from God.
IN short, their prosecution is a vain attempt to protect their privilege and authority, and continue to live as they prefer. They testify against themselves. The evidence is clear. There is no need for Jesus to judge them. Yet they are recognisably all too human and not caricatures. What if one needn’t be a Pharisee to suffer from delusions of personal importance and wilful rejection of God by failing to receive his word?
Reading today’s uncompromising text in the context of Bible Sunday reminds us of the good news that remedy is always available between the pages of the Bible. Jesus himself opens the Hebrew Bible again and again to enable the understanding and faith of others and to endure his ordeal of sacrifice for our sake. As a 12-year-old, he examined the scriptures in theTemple; the priests may have been impressed with his knowledge and understanding but to
the boy it was simply “doing his father’s business.” When tempted by Satan in the
wilderness, he replied each time by quoting scripture to state his refusal: “it is written”. On the cross, John reports that “…Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst”.
In Matthew 5, Jesus follows up the sermon on the mount and its radical re-ordering of our existence with this reassurance: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Mt. 5:17-18).”
A bonus text from the lectionary for this last Sunday after Trinity is useful guidance we can follow until then. Written by Paul awaiting execution in Rome to Timothy, a young pastor leading the church in Ephesus, it is as resolute, tireless and practical as its author:
2nd Timothy 3: v 16 -17 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Basically, you cannot go wrong by reading any book or portion of the Bible. Possess, peruse, take inspiration from the Bible, cherish and guard its contribution to your inner life, your eternal life and ability to live a good life. While you’re at it, keep an eye out for Jesus. After all, it was written so that we could come to him, believe on him and abide in eternal connection with God the almighty. It is one big love letter to his people written across time by his timeless Word. Amen.