Testwood Baptist Church - Old Testament survey Session 1 - Overview
It is just a survey! - there is vastly more that can be said about the Old Testament than we will have time for in 4 short sessions. The idea of these seminars is to provide a taste of some of the material. After tonight, which is a whistle-stop tour of some of the history and geography behind the stories, each of the three remaining weeks will look at one kind of Old Testament material. Next week we will cover Covenants - the various times and places that God set out a formal agreement with his people. The week after, we will look at "The Writings", the various books of wisdom literature such as Psalms and Proverbs, under the heading of how to deal with God in everyday life. Finally, we will look at the Prophets, not so much in the sense of what they said about the future, but how they challenged both personal and social issues and required changes to both. These three areas roughly correspond to how Jews divide up the book that we call the Old Testament.
It is irrelevant how many centuries may
separate us from a bygone age.
What is important is the importance of the past to our intellectual and spiritual existence.
This quotation was spoken as part of the obituary for a famous archaeologist of the 1800s, a man called Schliemann, famous for rediscovering the city of Troy. Schliemann was captivated with the world of ancient Greece, and that was what the speaker was referring to. However, these words are even more relevant to us as Christians than they were to him as one of the first scientific archaeologists. Our lives are gripped by an event that took place around 2000 years - 20 centuries - ago, and are energised by other events much older still. But the time interval does not matter - it is the reality of these events, the extent to which they shape our lives, that is all-important.
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Sometimes we can get the idea that this part - about 2/3 - of the Bible is just a picture book or some confusing stories! We use it quite a lot in Junior Church, but as we grow in understanding of the New Testament, some parts of the Old seem alien and uncomfortable to us. Some people have gone so far as to see a different God presented there, or else one whose character changed so radically from one Testament to the next it is hard to see how they fit together. In theory, of course, we know this is not the case, we affirm that all Scripture is inspired by God but it is not always easy to see this in action.
However, above all else, the Old Testament gives us a context
for understanding the words and deeds of Jesus and his disciples. Humanly speaking, Jesus acted as a Jewish man living in the light of Godís revealed covenant and plan for the nations, and we understand him better the more we learn of these. As a man, what he knew of God came from the pages of what we call the Old Testament, and the foundations for his message of grace, reconciliation and an uncompromising challenge to change the course of oneís life and oneís society, came out of this.
The Old Testament roots the whole Bible in history - it contains not just moral duties or theological propositions, but the practical outworking of these - case-studies if you like - of real people dealing with real places and circumstances. By tracing Godís dealings with both individuals and nations over long periods of time, we learn more about his character, motives and plans. The NT necessarily covers only a few years - less than 100 all told, and most of it is contained within a 40-year span. It is also largely concerned with individual
behaviour and individual
salvation. It is mostly from the OT we realise God is also passionately concerned with society as a whole
and issues such as social justice.
Finally, it reminds us that God does not always do things the way we think he should. As CS Lewis said of Aslan in the Narnia books, "he is not a tame lion". We often think we have sorted out exactly how God is going to do things. We are sure that He will do this, arrange that, steer our lives in the way we expect, sure that His priorities are the same as those of modern European culture. But this is not the case. He is a lion to be sure, but not a tame one, and he does as he knows best, from a grander and more perfect perspective than ours. His plans are definite, and ultimately involve good things for his people, but they are also patient and intricate plans spanning many centuries, so that generations of his people may live and die, may be excited, expectant, frustrated or disappointed between the start and end of an action. The Old Testament introduces us to people who believed in these plans but - as Hebrews 11 says - none of them received what they had been promised.
We often - and rightly - say that God is not remote from his creation. He is not a distant inventor, or a civil servant issuing occasional instructions from a locked office. But the Old Testament helps us to remember something else too. A few years ago, there was a vogue for films, like Top Gun, about pilots of fighter aircraft (Iím not sure these films are politically correct now, though personally I enjoy them). The heroes always have lightning-fast reactions, responding intuitively to the threats around them, amazing their teachers who try and stick by the combat rulebook. The whole Star Wars universe works like that, with the rule-bound droids and clones outmanoeuvred by the speedy intuition of the Jedi knight Messiahs. I wonder sometimes if we picture God like that, flashing from crisis to crisis in his heavenly aircraft cockpit, continually flying by raw nerve and intuition, and just about keeping the whole show together despite the multitude of enemies all around. But actually, he is not like that. He is not made to look inadequate or out of his depth by the task he has set himself, nor are his plans suddenly changed or derailed by unexpected circumstances. Rather, he is a master artist or craftsman, moving purposefully towards a goal he has had in mind from the beginning, labouring and taking infinite pains over his creation. Anything unexpected we see about his plans are failures of us to understand God, not failures of Him to realise what was happening.
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When we study the Old Testament in the light of other ancient literature, we see that although it is unique in terms of its underlying message of Godís plan of salvation, it is not unique in other ways. It shows similarities of style, language and attitude to life with writings from the surrounding nations. On a practical level, this helps with translation and interpretation of difficult words and phrases. But more than that, it helps us to understand it as a true product of human experience of God, rooted in real events and places.
Behind the words we read, lies the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but the individual pieces of writing were drafted by individual men. Their personal differences of priority, upbringing, and writing style emerge from the pages. We will see this especially in the Prophetsí writings in a few weeks time. But the writers shared a common heritage in how they looked at the world - in many ways like that of the nations around them, and rather different from a modern perspective.
was important only insofar as it had a moral or theological message. The Old Testament authors saw the importance of world events in terms of revealing something of Godís purposes. Sometimes we find things of only local interest recorded in great detail, but at other times great world events are ignored or casually dismissed. So, although the Old Testament contains a wealth of historical truth, it was not written as a modern history book.
is more than just a record of place names and locations. To the ancient world, a place and the people who lived there were intimately bound together. In modern terms, we see that most of the events of the OT take place within a small and clearly defined area of the world. Towards the end of the period, some of the prophets are clearly aware of places further afield (for example Danielís visions concerned a larger international stage). The nations of Greece and Rome - familiar from films and classical school education - were not at all important in this era. Instead, other nations held sway over larger or smaller regions. At times, Egypt or one of the Mesopotamian nations (Assyria, Babylon or Persia) ruled large empires - at other times when these were weak, individual cities or smaller nations contested for power and influence. But the Old Testament use of a place name involves more than this. When an Old Testament author speaks of the city of Babylon, he is not intending his readers to just think of a city a few thousand miles away. He is expecting them to call to mind their religion, the ways that Babylon had dealt with them before, what their rulers and society was like. A place was never just
a place, but rather the consequences of a trail of people and actions occurring at that place. A nation was seen in terms of the spiritual and moral effects it exerted on others. The Old Testament records a continual battle within the Israelite nation between cultivating their relationship with God, and being drawn to follow the practices of other nations, especially when they were living amongst them. This struggle is highlighted by the prophets and psalmists, and is a key New Testament theme as well. From time to time the Israelites moved from one place to another - sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because they were forced to. Each of these moves plays a key role in the shaping of the nation and the unfolding plan of Godís salvation.
Finally, the Israelites did - and to an extent still do - see memory as much more than simply keeping a record of the past. Remembering the Exodus, as commanded in the books of Moses and still done today in the Passover, is not a simple matter of recollecting some events that happened long ago. Rather, it provides a way of bringing the reality of that time into the present. Deuteronomy 16:1 was written nearly 40 years after the events it recalls, and was to be enacted by a new generation of people, but the verse says "God brought you
out of Egypt". The Passover Seder ceremony today still requires participants to say "God brought us out of the land of the Egyptians". This is how Jesus and his disciples would have understood communion, and it is worth remembering that the first communion Jesus held with his disciples was at a Passover ceremony. For us also it should not be a convenient and fairly quick way of remembering something that happened nearly 2000 years ago - it is intended to be a way of making those events real again for us, and applying the benefit of them to our own personal or collective situations.
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There are two main Ďwindowsí that shed light on Old Testament times - bearing in mind that the historical portions of the book cover nearly 2000 years. These are:
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Archaeology. This involves the study of physical artefacts recovered from various sites of importance in the ancient world. It is best for shedding light on everyday lives, and modern archaeology includes reconstructing tools, items and ways of life to better appreciate how things actually worked. Its limitations are that only a small fraction of items is preserved at all, and interpreting these finds can be difficult. If a city has been burnt at some stage, is that accidental - say an earthquake or other disaster - or deliberate - by an invader? If deliberate, who did this and why?
- History. The Old Testament text we have dates from well after the times it describes - the earliest date we can be totally confident of is only a few hundred years before Jesus lived. However, there are a very large number of inscriptions and other Ďdocumentsí from earlier times, to which the Biblical writings can be compared to identify similar situations. In Egypt, where the hot dry climate is ideal for preserving such things, we have some papyrus documents, but for the most part, ancient records take the form of clay tablets with inscribed characters. Most of the ancient world also made statues and normally carved inscriptions on these. Israel is unusual in having very few of these. There are other problems with written sources - translation is often unclear and difficult, and writers often had their personal axe to grind and were not interested in generating impartial accounts for our benefit. The Old Testament books themselves were not written to supply an impartial record of world events, but to pass on to future generations something of the activity of God. The writers were not especially interested in carrying out an exhaustive, neutral study of the world.
As far as the Israelites of the Old Testament were concerned, the world was balanced between the two poles of Egypt in the west, and Mesopotamia in the east. Both were associated with idolatrous behaviour, which the Israelites were instructed to avoid. However, the attitudes to the two nations vary. With the exception of the one period just before the Exodus, Egypt is on the whole regarded favourably, though not as a reliable ally. Assyria gets a mixed press, Babylon (modern-day Iraq) is uniformly perceived as bad, and Persia (modern-day Iran) as good.
There are numerous places in the ancient world that were - in ordinary historical terms - important, but which are not dealt with in any depth by the Old Testament authors. The Hittite empire, which contended with Egypt for supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean for many years, is absent - the Hittites who are mentioned occasionally in Genesis and elsewhere are at most loosely related to these people. A country called Mitanni at one stage dominated Assyria, and was an equal partner in the "great nations club" of the time - but since this had passed away by the time of David and Solomon, it is overlooked. The only clue we get that this region was at all significant in the life of Israel is that Isaac and Jacob both arranged for their sons to marry women from this area.
So, the fact that a place gets mentioned or not mentioned in the Old Testament often has little to do with its political stature. The Old Testament authors were quite pragmatic in their choice of material - if it did not shed light on how God dealt with them as a nation or as individual people, it did not get included. Also, there were times when Israel did not have the luxury of looking outside her own borders - the struggle to survive was too acute to allow for international commentary. This rhythm of times of great travel and distant scope, followed by times of constraint and a narrow vision, can be traced through the whole book, and in fact is often mirrored in our own personal lives. We too have times when our freedom of movement and opportunity seems vast, and other times when we feel hemmed in and constrained.
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When Abraham first came into the land (around 2000 BC), he was promised it as a home for his descendants (we will deal more with promise next session). However, it was to be many years before it was effectively united as a nation under Israelite control - say the end of Davidís reign around 1000 BC. It took a thousand years for this promise to be effectively secured. Under Joshua, about halfway through this time, significant parts of the land had been claimed. However, several strong Canaanite cities and their surrounding lands could not be captured or successfully subdued (especially in the coastal plain and in the north). When the dust had settled, only the central hill country and Jordan Valley areas had really been secured.
The coastal plain was seized by Philistines, generally thought to originate from the Greek islands and originally employed by Egypt as mercenaries. To the east, the trans-Jordan area was quite vulnerable to outside threats, and the north was uncomfortably close to the various rulers of what we now call Syria, and what in earlier years was called Aram. After the kingdom had been divided, after Solomonís death, southern rulers at Jerusalem were less threatened by some of these outside influences. Although in terms of spiritual
development, most of the Bibleís focus is on Judah, in political
terms the northern kingdom of Israel was the more powerful and internationally significant.
Finally, as time passed, both the northern and southern nations declined. Politically this decline can be seen in their territories being steadily reduced, or them being forced to pay tribute to outside conquerors. Spiritually, we see it with increasing inequality and injustice, or the adoption of the religious practices of the surrounding nations. Both halves were destroyed as nations and taken into exile, but the OT closes with a remnant being allowed to return to their Jerusalem homeland by the new top country - Persia - and to start to rebuild their national and religious life.
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We are now going to turn from geography to history, and a quick look at who was who in the world of the Old Testament.
Abraham left Mesopotamia at a time when it was broken into many individual city-states. Some - for a time - managed to control small regions, but there were no substantial or long-lasting empires. From this time for many years, until partway through the divided monarchy, Egypt was the dominant force in the Palestine area. As with any nation, Egypt went through periods of being alternately strong and weak, and this ebb and flow was matched by the extent to which Egyptian armies dominated the coastal strip up towards the Hittite empire in what we now call Turkey. During the later stages of the divided kingdom, the Mesopotamian nations - now grown up into a series of strong but short-lived empires - spread west to control and assimilate Israel and the other nearby countries.
As well as the large super-power countries affecting the whole Middle East, Israel had to confront a succession of hostile neighbours threatening her. At the time of the Conquest, the Canaanite occupants represented such a threat, and then the Philistines had to be fought for many years by the last of the Judges, by Saul and by David. In spiritual terms, these warlike neighbours were often seen as instruments used by God to judge the waywardness of his people, or as tests of their faithfulness.
A considerable amount of work has gone on over the years to see how far the Old Testament genuinely reflects the times it claims to describe. The earliest actual documents we have date from very much later - only a few hundred years before the time of Jesus - so many people have challenged the idea that the contents really do give an accurate description. Certainly it is true that the various books, especially the older ones, have been copied many times before the versions we have, and there are places where additions and annotations by later authors can be detected. However, the different books, in many different ways, do indeed show evidence of genuinely arising at the time claimed. In the monarchy period, there are a considerable number of literary cross-references with documents from other nations, and we can often match up parallel accounts from both sides. The accounts of Abraham and the other patriarchs in Genesis are so rich in detail that setting them in the general region of 2000 BC is not difficult. The interesting area comes in between - the two spans of time from Joseph to Moses, and from Moses to Saul and David, are both of uncertain length, and although the accounts of Exodus and Conquest read as authentic descriptions of events, actually fitting them into a specific time is difficult. If you read through different books on the subject you will find quite a range of possible solutions - at present the fairest way of putting it is to say that we can only date it in general terms, not exactly.
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As mentioned above, whilst the Israelites spent most of the Old Testament within the borders of Israel, there were certain very special and significant moves to or from this land.
- Abraham left Mesopotamia in response to Godís call "leave your fatherís house and go to the place I will show you". This act of obedience is a pivot point in the story of salvation - it led to the beginning of true covenant relationship with God, to nationhood, and to the security of a land. Some of Abrahamís later actions were not based on faith, and the divisive effects of those can be seen still in the Middle East today, but this particular act of obedience is a key stage on the road to the cross.
- Joseph left Israel for Egypt - not this time in obedience to God, but as the result of the resentful actions of jealous brothers towards his own arrogance. It is only much later in the account we learn that Godís sovereignty and his wish to preserve his people lay behind the human drama. Entering Egypt as a slave, Joseph rose to power and influence (a pattern shared with other foreigners, as the Egypt of Josephís day was open to such possibilities), but over the years the cycle reversed and Josephís descendants slid into slavery again.
- Moses, raised in wealth and privilege, turned his back on this in order to identify with his kindred. As with Abraham, Mosesí obedience is a key moment in the history of salvation. Once again, Godís recurring themes of covenant, nationhood, and land emerge as he sets his people free. They were not freed to scatter across the world into separate corners, but to become a Godly people, imaging God to the world. In just the same way, Jesus frees individuals from their own slavery not to be simply redeemed individuals in splendid isolation, but to form a kingdom of priests, effectively living out Trinitarian life in a way that beckons to others.
- Exile and Return. Long years after, Israel had - as a people considered collectively - neglected their social and religious duties. Individual good rulers had to some extent reversed the trend for a few years, but on the whole the slide was downwards. Considered in political terms, the exile was an action carried out by their Babylonian overlords for a breach of the treaty. But the Biblical writers see the breach of treaty with God as the more important cause, and the duration of the exile as a picture of the extent to which the Israelites had failed to carry out their side of the bargain. Likewise, the return from Exile is both a generous political move by a new ruler, and at the same time the fruit of a national repentance and reawakening of sense of duty towards God. Both are good descriptions of the same events. We will be dealing with this more next week - but suffice it to say for now that the Exile was a punishment for a nation, not for individuals within it. Before and during the Exile, there were many within Israel who on a personal level maintained their faithfulness with God - but nevertheless they suffered along with the rest.
So, whilst Israel was expected to live out a Godly lifestyle within the borders of the land, the key decisions were made whilst away from the land. For Abraham and his retinue, for Moses and the Israelites, for the people in Exile, the steps of faith they took while out
of their normal environment were the ones that would shape the life of the nation for years to come. Even more than that, they were profoundly important stages in Godís unfolding purpose. Life in the Promised Land was a life of putting into practice, of understanding the reality, of decisions taken on the edge. How often is that true also for us? That the way in which we live our lives each day, in what we might call the Ďnormal Christian lifeí, is shaped by those few really important decisions taken out of the ordinary, during unusual highs or lows of life when the significance of the decision is so much greater. This is a theme we shall revisit many times over the next few weeks. For tonight, I just want to emphasis that key decisions are few and far between in the life of the nation of Israel, just as they are in the life of an individual. Donít misunderstand me - every choice we make is an important choice - but some are more important than others. For Israel as a nation, there were four really important, direction-changing choices in about 2000 years. How many important choices are you expecting in your life, and what will you do with them when they come along?
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Spiritual and moral influences
People they made
had worked for
People who had
So, the key decisions of the Israelites were often made while away from the land. However, their life in the land was the proving ground of those decisions. I want again to say how very much this is like us. We often make
our commitments to the Lord in unusual circumstances - on a Bible camp, at a special rally, in a place of natural beauty, with a special person, or alone in the middle of the night. But we live out
the consequences of those decisions in the often-harsh reality of normality. Those decisions are tested in the work place, in the family, in the everyday life where the moments of crux can seem very remote. Your surroundings may be difficult or unsympathetic, or they may be upbuilding and supportive - but they are everyday surroundings and not high points.
I donít know what the major spiritual influences are in your own lives, but for the Israelites, living in the world but expected to live by another spirit, caused great tension. There were four main areas in which the Israelites were challenged and frequently failed.
As a nation, Israel entered into agreements
with other nations. I have picked out the Phoenicians as an example of this - Solomonís treaty with King Hiram of the city of Tyre was immensely useful to Israel, as it gave them a friend on whom they could rely to their north. Both sides kept faith with each other for many years, and in political terms, this was a productive and useful alliance. The Phoenicians were craftsmen and traders, and the arrangement gave Israel access to a world that would have otherwise been difficult for them to enter. So it was a useful
alliance - but was it godly
? This is much harder to assess, but it is certain that it opened Israel (especially the northern parts of the land) to a range of religious habits that were unwholesome. Hiramís craftsmen helped Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem, but later on - through marriage alliances - Israel began to absorb Phoenician spirituality.
Of course, a more immediate influence were the people amongst whom the Israelites lived. When Joshua initially came into the land, the intention was to drive out the occupants - the Canaanites. However, the intention failed. In some areas the Canaanite cities were stronger than the Israelites were ready to tackle, and the inhabitants remained in control for many years. Elsewhere, the Israelites made an initial sweep through the land and staked a claim to it, but then stepped back and failed to secure the land they had marched through. When, somewhat later, they moved back to these areas they found that the Canaanites had returned to their homes - not unlike the unclean spirits of Jesusí parable who return to the swept but empty household in order to reoccupy it. I wonder if Jesus was thinking back to the history of his own people when he made this analogy - certainly the Israelites had been in the same situation as the person in the story. The second time around, the Israelites had to make negotiated settlements with these people, and in some places we learn from history that this entailed religious accommodation to the Canaanite ways. By hanging back from their task, by returning to the safety and familiarity of their base-camp after each campaign, they lost an opportunity to do something great, and another opportunity did not present itself for many years.
Another major influence on the Israelites was Egypt - not so much in later years, but during the Exodus a recurrent theme is "letís go back to Egypt". There does not seem to be any real draw towards Egyptian religion
- the idols the Israelites made in Sinai do not seem to be based on any Egyptian prototype, and presumably seeing the gods of Egypt so thoroughly put to flight by their own God removed any respect they might have had. But the lifestyle
of Egypt was a draw, and in later years it was Egypt that people returned to in search of security they could not find in the land of Israel. In the desert, the Israelites did not say, "let us go back to the Egyptian gods" - but they did say, "in Egypt we ate all the food we wanted!" Iíve headed this, "people they had worked for" - although the Israelites had been enslaved towards the end of their stay in Egypt, they had begun their sojourn as honoured guests, and it is clear that by and large they looked favourably on Egypt. The point here, I think, is not that the people of Israel were drawn to copy Egyptian religion - hardly anyone outside ancient Egypt ever has been drawn to do this - but that it offered what seemed to be more security, a more reliable safety-net than life in the Promised Land. God warned them through Isaiah that this apparent security was a crushed reed, that could not support them and would end up causing more hurt - but still the lure was powerful.
Finally - and in historical terms rather later - came the people from Mesopotamia - beyond the River Euphrates. Abraham had left at a time when the city-states here were small and local, not seeking world empires. In religious terms, worship of the moon and other celestial bodies was common, and it seems likely that Abrahamís own immediate ancestors were moon-worshippers. It is clear that God expected Abraham to leave behind the spiritual
influence of his ancestors as well as simply their home. In fact he did not seem to have much difficulty doing this - the times when he wavered in allegiance to God were not due to the lure of old religious habits, but the sheer difficulty of maintaining active faith that Godís promises would come true. But by the time the Israelites encountered people from this area again, from Assyrian and Babylon, described for us in the books of Kings and Chronicles and by some of the prophets, things had changed. To the Israelites of the later monarchy times, these people came from the east as conquerors, abusers who would defeat their best efforts and crush them. They did not come to woo or seduce the people of Israel - they simply came to overpower and dominate. Against the small kingdoms and rulers in their immediate area, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had managed reasonably well to keep their identity. But against these overwhelmingly strong enemies they felt helpless, powerless to keep their integrity. As a conquered people, they were forced to submit to alien habits and ways of life, which were offensive and hurtful. Their capacity for choice had been taken away. It took an external, even more powerful ruler - Cyrus, seen as a saviour by the Old Testament writers - to defeat the Babylonians and set the Israelites free again.
So those are the main spiritual influences at work in the everyday lives of the Israelites - people they made agreements with, people they lived with, people they worked for, and people who had defeated them. How many of those factors, I wonder, are at work in our own everyday lives? What are the main spiritual challenges that reduce the effect of the resolutions and choices you have made at key, life-changing moments. What is in our everyday lives that draw us away from the best God has for us?
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The land you live on is important
"How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?"
... Psalm 137:4
The culture of the people you live with has a strong effect on you
"Do not give your daughters to [the Canaanites'] sons or take their daughters for your sons,
for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods
... The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the earth
to be His people, his treasured possession"
... Deuteronomy 7:3,6
Memory is not just recalling the past, but reliving it in each generation
"Observe the month of Abib and celebrate the Passover of the LORD your God,
because in the month of Abib he brought you out of Egypt by night"
... Deuteronomy 16:1
I want to finish for today by thinking about how the Israelites viewed their past. In the Old Testament, history, geography and spirituality are all bound together in a whole - not separate subjects as we try to make them today. The land was important, not just as a dwelling-place but as a tangible sign of Godís provision. A psalmist, writing in exile in Babylon, wrote, "How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" A land was soaked in the history and the religious practices of the people who had lived there - both for good and for ill.
It was not just the people of Israel that felt this. In 2 Kings 5, we read of Naaman, a Syrian army leader. After visiting the prophet Elisha and being healed of leprosy, he became convinced of the power and supremacy of the God of Israel. To help him keep faith as he returned to his own country, where he would be surrounded by different religious duties and practices, he asked to be allowed to take away some of the soil of Israel - as much as two mules could carry - a tangible reminder of this encounter. Sometimes we humans need a concrete thing with us, to keep alive the importance of something in times of difficulty or forgetfulness. The great images we have been given of life with God involve a dwelling-place, a true home to which we will be given entrance, a fig-tree and a vine to sit beneath. The Old Testament reminds us that going to God is - in the end - finding our real home. This is not just an Old Testament theme - it is present in Old and New alike. The idea that being with God is a sort of intangible, ghostly existence for disembodied spirits is not a Biblical idea - our promise is of a new heaven and new earth, with resurrected bodies to enjoy them both.
The great events of history were not just interesting things to recall, like holiday snapshots we bring out from time to time. If it was worth remembering
, it was worth reliving
, calling the greatness of the past moment into the present. To this day, the Passover ceremony celebrated annually by Jews, recalling the Exodus from Egypt about 3500 years ago, requires the participants to say "God brought us
out of the land of the Egyptians ... he gave us
the Sabbath ... he brought us
into the land of Israel", and to affirm "it is a manís duty to regard himself as if he himself
had come forth from Egypt ... It is not our fathers alone that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed, but he redeemed us also with them
". For us, communion should be like this. Communion is not intended to be a swift snapshot of a past event; it is a participation in the greatest moment in all the world. So when we share communion - sharing both the moment and the life - we are bringing this historic event into the present - into our own personal lives, and into the shared life of the church. We bring it to life again by participating
in it - this moment from the past, weaving our lives and our actions together with that of our Lord. It may be a New Testament celebration - but it is rooted in the Old Testament way of relating to God and each other.
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Each week as we go through these sessions, there is going to be something in the way of a personal exercise. If anyone really feels uncomfortable doing this, then by all means just sit and think, or pray, or something. However, participating in this should help you to make real something about the subject matter for the evening. At the other end of the spectrum, some of you may want afterwards to talk the matter through with another person.
Tonightís activity is looking at our own path through life to this point. I have been saying how the Old Testament shows us that the places the Israelites went to, the things they did, the things that were important to them, and the people they met, were all important factors in shaping their spiritual lives. So it is with us. The sheet you (hopefully) all have is intended to go from when you were born until today. Iíve put an entirely fictional example on the screen to show the sort of things I mean - for each of you different things will seem important.
I want to emphasise that so far as this evening is concerned, this is a purely subjective assessment of matters. In actuality, we may be very close to God when we feel far away, or very far away when we feel close. The people you think were not influential in your lives may actually have been crucial. Some of you might want to go through this with another person in order to come to a more objective view of what has happened in your own past. Thatís not a job for tonight. But starting to think about your life in this way - whether it sheds new light on your own history or not, should help you grasp a little better how the people in the Old Testament looked at their own past. As I said earlier, it is entirely up to each person here how much he or she shares of this exploration of themselves with other people. I would encourage you to be honest and realistic with your assessment of your own past.
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