Psalm 119:105-112; Matthew 5:17-20

1st Sunday after Trinity

St Barbara’s 02.06.2024

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Some of you may have picked up over the years that I quite enjoy my history. One of the most obvious points about any approach to history is that to understand why a certain event happened – why a certain ruler acted in the way they did, why a certain country went to war, why a particular ideology took root in the minds of the people – you have to put that event in context. You have to understand what went before, that may have shaped the thinking and the actions of the present.

Lets take a couple of examples from the last century. To understand the rise of Hitler and Naziism in Germany in the 1930s that led to the second world war, it really helps to go back not just to the events of the first world war and its aftermath, but before that, to how the German state was created sixty years earlier, with its inherent contradictions.

Or take something nearer to our times. To understand Thatcherism, we can just read about the events of the 1980s in isolation, but to truly understand it, we need to understand something of what went on in the 1970s, the three-day week, the black-outs, the oil crisis, the winter of discontent, the power of the unions.

In other words, the past helps us to understand better what happens in the present. That was particularly true for the early Christians. Imagine their situation. Their lives had been totally turned upside down by Jesus: by his teaching and his example, and then by his death, and then even more so by his resurrection. How were they to make sense of it all? Jesus has given them pointers, clues, but they were pretty blind to what he meant before his death and resurrection, and now that the penny was beginning to drop, he was no longer around for them to ask questions of.

So where did they go to make sense of all that happened? Where did they go to work out what they should do now? Well the answer for these Jews, who had become followers of Jesus, the answer was obvious: they should return to their own history and their own Scriptures to find answers.

This wasn’t some dry, academic exercise, the disciples going to the equivalent of the university library to pore over ancient scripts and calling a symposium to debate the meaning of a particular word. This would have been more like a passionate discussion down the pub about whether the Coventry side of the 1980s that won the FA Cup was better than this season’s side that got to the semi-finals, or a discussion amongst pop-fans about which was the best Beatles or Oasis album.

For Jesus’ followers, the stories from their Scriptures, of creation, of Abraham, of Moses, of king David, would have been such a part of their upbringing, such a part of their daily discourse, that they would instinctively turn to them to make sense of the world. It was what they lived and breathed. And so when their whole world was turned upside-down, when the normal categories of thinking were thrown up in the air by the advent of Jesus, of course it was to their Scriptures that they would turn.

We saw a couple of weeks ago how at Pentecost Jesus’ followers would have made sense of those extraordinary events by going to the past. The flames on their heads reminding them of the story of Moses and the burning bush; the wind reminding them of God’s act of creation; their ability to speak and be understood in different languages reminding them of the story of the Tower of Babel.

So imagine those Christians sitting down in a room eating a meal together, or talking away as they were busy working together, and wrestling with such challenges as: why did Jesus die? what did he mean when he said he was the “lamb of God”? what was now the role of the temple in Jerusalem and what about all the animal sacrifices? what did Jesus mean by the “kingdom of God”? what relationship with God did those who followed Jesus have? As they wrestled with those questions, as they tried to make sense and find meaning, it was back to those Scriptures that they would have gone.

Those Scriptures are what we would now call the Old Testament. It is possible that as I say those two words, “Old Testament”, your heart may sink. Those Scriptures, written between 2,500-3,000 years ago feel so much older and more distant from us than the words of the New Testament, written only just a bit more recently 2,000 years ago. And that is not a surprise. For just as the worldview, the understanding of the world, was totally shaped for the first century Jews who followed Jesus by the Old Testament scriptures, so our worldview and understanding is totally shaped by the New Testament. As Tom Holland, the historian, not the spider man actor, has pointed out, the last two thousand years of western civilisation has been totally shaped by the Christian faith, whether its influence is acknowledged or not. So it is difficult for us at times to read the Old Testament and not feel a little disconnected with it, to not feel it is a little out of touch with our modern world.

But for us to understand our Christian faith better, for us to understand the imagery and the concepts of the New Testament writers more fully, we need to understand  where they were coming from, what was shaping them and helping them make sense of the world, and to do that we need to look once more at the Old Testament.

So over the next few weeks, we are going to be doing just that, looking at key passages from the Old Testament and how they would have shaped the thinking of Jesus’ followers and helped them make sense of who he was. We could choose to do that of any part of the Old Testament, but we are going to concentrate on just the first two books of the Old Testament, Genesis and Exodus, and how the stories there shape how the New Testament begins to make sense of Jesus. Next week we will look at the creation story, and in following weeks, we will look at the stories of the fall of Adam and Eve, the calling of Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Passover and the escape from slavery in Egypt.

But today, it is worth taking a quick look at Jesus’ attitude to the Old Testament scriptures. These were what he lived and breathed, what he grew up learning and reciting, and what he frequently quoted, or read from when in the synagogues. And as we heard in our gospel reading, he had come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets (ie, the Scriptures), but to fulfil them.

What did that mean? Well for one thing, it meant that these Scriptures, inspired by God, treasured and passed down through the centuries, first orally, and then in writing, should be treasured. That they contained wisdom and truth that could guide daily life, that could inspire worship and praise, that could prompt penitence and change. As Psalm 119 puts it: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, a lamp on my path… my heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.” Jesus valued these Scriptures, he handled them with respect, and his urging to his followers was “we should do so too”. We should try and read the Old Testament and when we struggle with it, when it jars with us, when it leaves us uncomfortable or non-plussed, rather than giving up on it, we should try and wrestle with it, asking what is of God in  this, where can we find the deeper truths that point us to God. What did previous generations read and find so important?

And the second aspect of Jesus’ attitude to the Scriptures is this. He didn’t just value the Scriptures. He came to fulfil them. In other words, they take on a far deeper, more profound meaning when understood in the light of his life, death and resurrection.

I remember as a 13 year old stepping outside the opticians, wearing glasses for the first time. Everything was just the same as it had been before I stepped into the opticians – the shops were still in the same places, the street signs and bill boards still had the same writing on them – but at the same time, when I left the opticians wearing those glasses, everything had changed. I saw things with a sharpness and clarity that previously I didn’t know existed; I read words that had just seemed a blur of lines before.

When we read the Old Testament scriptures we may experience the same. Everything feels a bit blurred, a bit difficult to interpret. But when we look through the lens of Christ, we may find that things become clearer, that Christ brings clarity to who God is and how he acts in his world.

So as we begin this series, can I encourage you to allow the Scriptures that shaped the early Christians to shape us, and to allow Christ to open our eyes to the meaning that his presence brings to his word and our world. Amen.