Do you look think of the Old Testament God as a bit of a tyrant, issuing rules and regulations, punishing people severely? Is God out to spoil our lives with his list of ‘Thou shalt not’s’? There are parts of the Old Testament which are not easy to fathom but we cannot easily write it off as unnecessary to us now we are more sophisticated. Jesus did not suggest that the Hebrew Scriptures had been superseded when he arrived on earth, but that they were fulfilled. The God Jesus showed us is not a different God but the same, characterised by justice and mercy, full of love and very patient with us. This kind of God is described in the passage from Hosea which was read in the 2pm SLT service on Thursday.
The readings were Hosea 11:1,3-4,8-9; Psalm 105:1-7; Matthew 10:7-15. My reflection from the service is given below.
How disciplined are you about reading your Bible? The Bible is the most bought and least read book it seems. To overcome this, a lot of work is done by organisations to help us to engage with it. There are Bible study notes that you can buy as a book; you can receive a daily study by email from WordLive; you can have a Bible reading plan either on paper or online, so many aids to studying the Bible. Next year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible and to celebrate this, the Biblefresh initiative in the UK http://www.biblefresh.com/ is encouraging churches to help their members engage more with the Bible. I can see why this is needed as the recent research indicates that only 1 in 7 Christians read the Bible outside of a church meeting according to the Biblefresh website.
Even those people who do read their Bible regularly seem more likely to read the New Testament than the Old Testament. There is a tendency to believe that the Old Testament is boring and irrelevant to our modern lives. It’s understandable that long lists of who was the father of whom and how many men able to go to war there were in each tribe of Israel may not appeal to everyone. The many laws listed to cover clean and unclean animals, how to deal with leprosy or what you should and shouldn’t eat, which are found in Leviticus, may seem archaic and superstitious. Although the Ten Commandments were delivered directly from God for his people, they may seem very negative and restrictive. Many don’t want to read a long list of ‘Thou shalt not’s’.
Perhaps another stumbling block with the Old Testament is the apparent nature of God portrayed there. What kind of God tells his people to kill every occupant of a city, men, women, children and animals? What sort of relationship is there with Abraham when God tells him to sacrifice his only son Isaac, born to him in old age? What about Sodom and Gomorrah being wiped off the face of the earth along with Admah and Zeboiim? How many children were killed then just because the lives of the adults were immoral? These are difficult questions with no easy answers.
And so we tend to stick to the New Testament. Jesus shows us a different God it seems, one full of love and mercy, not judgement and wrath. However, when we actually read carefully we find that Jesus points to a time of judgement. Moving testaments does not take that away. If we think the Ten Commandments are hard to deal with, what about the way Jesus makes even our thoughts subject to examination. No longer is it enough to avoid murder, we must also avoid anger with our brother or sister. Avoiding adultery is not sufficient; we must not look on someone else’s wife or husband with lust. In Jesus’ teaching the thought is tantamount to the deed. That is a very hard teaching to swallow indeed. When asked to sum up the Law, Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus does not give us any reason to avoid what were to him the Scriptures.
One of the advantages of attending the regular services at midnight and noon in our chapel is that we get to hear the Bible read out loud on a daily basis. Usually we are working through two books of the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, although on special festivals the readings are geared to that theme. We also work through the Psalms with their wonderful insights into the raw emotions of human lives.
Sometimes I come away puzzled by the readings from the Old Testament but other times I am captivated by what we read. On Monday we read about Hannah who was childless and made fun of by her husband’s other wife. The story told of how she poured out her troubles to God and was granted a child, Samuel. It’s a wonderful human story of need and faith and of God’s grace. Today the book of Esther has begun, following the fortunes of a young Jewish girl who found herself in a position to save her people. As her cousin Mordecai said to her, perhaps she was made queen in a foreign land ‘for such a time as this’.
Today we have had read a beautiful passage from the book of Hosea. Here we have an opportunity to see into God’s heart. God looks back to the time when the nation of Israel was just beginning to see itself as an entity. For 400 years the descendants of Abraham had been slaves but finally God called Israel, his son, out of Egypt. The nation was like a helpless newborn infant, without strength to fight the Egyptians, unable to feed itself or find the water necessary for survival.
God taught the infant to walk and carried him safely in his arms when necessary. Like a child who takes for granted the care he or she receives from a parent, Israel didn’t know it was God who tended to his injuries when he was in need of healing. The picture of God guiding Israel with loving cords reminds me of my own father who helped our daughter to walk by slipping a towel around her chest and under her arms. He held the ends of the towel so that she was supported and guided but could step forward by herself.
God lifted Israel as a father might lift his child, way up safely in his arms so that the silky cheek of the child rubs against his own. What a beautiful tender picture. God came down to the level of Israel, as you should do with a child, not towering over him, in order to feed him.
Despite God’s never failing love, Israel disobeyed him many times, running after other gods and only calling on their loving Father God when their choices brought them trouble. However, even this provocation was not enough to break the bond between God and his people. No matter what the people did, God could not face the idea of turning his back on them. Maybe human reason would say enough is enough, Israel has to be punished. But God is God and not a man. His love and mercy are greater than his wrath.
This God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus; the God whose message of hope and healing the disciples took to the towns and villages, is the same today. His love for us is the same as his love for his wayward nation Israel. It is unthinkable to him that it should change.
Listen to him:
When you were a child, I loved you,
and out of slavery I called you.
It was I who taught you to walk,
I took you up in my arms;
but you did not know that I healed you.
I led you with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to you like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to you and fed you.
How can I give you up?
How can I hand you over?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy you;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor