A New Time
A fuller, audio version of this talk will be published as a special episode of the four cubits and a span podcast, and will be available at https://bit.ly/4QS-LS3 (or wherever you get your podcasts). All scripture quotations from the Revised English Bible, copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1989. All rights reserved.
We live in a changing world. Truly I don’t think there’s a time when the world is not changing, but it can be unsettling to live through times like these when so many aspects of our social landscape seem to be shifting. Our society here in the Western world is shifting, moved by tides that have been building for many years. As Christians we look to scripture during unsettling times, and our faith tradition can be comforting and reassuring.
But when we come to the Bible, we are coming to a collection of books written by and for a particular people, in a particular time, and in a particular place. How many ways has society changed since then? How different is our context from the context of our sacred scriptures? And how often do we think about this when we come to it, looking for guidance on navigating change? Are we looking for an instruction book, a manual for life? Navigating times and places so different to our own is challenging, and - just like navigating change - it may not be easy to do.
But the Bible can guide us if we allow it to. Scripture itself expects us to experience change, because change leads to growth. To a community struggling to accept new ideas, the writer of Hebrews has this criticism:
About Melchizedek we have much to say, much that is difficult to explain to you, now that you have proved so slow to learn. By this time you ought to be teachers, but instead you need someone to teach you the ABC of God’s oracles over again. It comes to this: you need milk instead of solid food. Anyone who lives on milk is still an infant, with no experience of what is right. Solid food is for adults, whose perceptions have been trained by long use to discriminate between good and evil. Let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity. We ought not to be laying the foundation all over again: repentance from the deadness of our former ways and faith in God, by means of instruction about cleansing rites and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement. Instead, let us advance towards maturity; and so we shall, if God permits.
Hebrews 5:11 – 6:3
The writer clearly expected the believers to grow in maturity on a personal level, to learn more and allow their perspective to change as they did so. But Christianity is not just about individuals, not just about people who follow God; it’s about community, a people (group) of God. Scripture expects communal growth as well. Here’s what Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, as followers of God in Christ:
And it is he who has given some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip God’s people for work in his service, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God — to mature manhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ. We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes. Rather we are to maintain the truth in a spirit of love; so shall we fully grow up into Christ. He is the head, and on him the whole body depends. Bonded and held together by every constituent joint, the whole frame grows through the proper functioning of each part, and builds itself up in love.
Change leads to growth. In new times and new circumstances we are confronted with new perspectives and ideas. We can choose to resist change, or we can choose to learn, grow, and respond with a Christian conscience; we can exercise the mind of Christ. Scripture encourages us to confront these tensions and learn more about following God. As our examples, to guide us into wisdom, we have both the people in the scriptures and the people of the scriptures.
Take the story in Genesis 22, where God commands father Abraham to take his son of promise, Isaac, and sacrifice him on a mountain top. In the Christian tradition, we usually refer to this as ‘the sacrifice of Isaac’. This is a story from an ancient time where sacrifices were a way of life. The earliest stories of Genesis describe blood sacrifice as one of the first practices of human culture. And as Christians we can easily read this story as a story about resurrection. We can see Jesus in this story, the beloved son of the father who goes to sacrifice and lives by an act of God’s deliverance.
But our Jewish cousins have a very different view of this story. It’s one of the most debated stories of the Hebrew Bible, the subject of thousands of years of Jewish commentary. In Jewish tradition, it’s (more accurately) known as ‘the binding of Isaac’, or simply ‘Akedah’ (the Hebrew word for "binding"). It’s a story that forces the reader to ask the most uncomfortable questions.
Why did God make this demand of Abraham? Child sacrifice is an abomination throughout the Hebrew Bible. Sacrificing children to Molok is one of the behaviours of the Canaanite nations given in Torah as reason for the Israelites to prosecute a genocide. In 2 Kings, the great sin of King Manasseh of Judah was sacrificing his own children to Molok, and his sin is so abominable that Judah falls to Babylon. It’s the ultimate act of idolatry and immorality in the Hebrew Bible. So why did God issue that command?
Indeed, why did Abraham follow it without question? Just a few chapters earlier, Abraham withstood God and, at least in the narrative of the story, changed God’s mind. Announcing the destruction of the cities of the plain to Abraham, God allows Abraham not only to object but to barter with God, to argue and bargain with God. And no wonder: the sanctity of life is at the core of the Hebrew Bible. It’s enshrined in the first law code in Genesis, the Noahide laws in Genesis 9. So why did Abraham follow God’s command without question?
These are the most obvious questions to ask, and yet the text passes no judgement and offers no answers in either case. So perhaps it is not the answer that’s important, but the act of asking the question. Abraham learns something about God. He learns that this God that he followed out of his homeland is not like the gods of his homeland. He grows and his perspective changes, even as God stays his hand and literally forces him to change his point of view to see the ram caught in the bush.
And this is not the last thing that the people of God have to learn about sacrifice. The Law given to Moses frames the sacrificial system as something more than atonement by blood. In Leviticus 5 we read that the act of offering reparation to God for sin is more important than the method. It enshrines economic justice: those who could not afford to bring an expensive animal to sacrifice could bring less valuable animals; those who could not afford that, could bring flour.
In Leviticus 6 we see one of the most significant strands of Torah sacrifice: uniting the people of God around a system of justice.
When any person sins by false use of the LORD’s name, whether the person lies to a fellow-countryman about a deposit or contract, or a theft, or wrongs him by extortion, or finds lost property and then lies about it, and swears a false oath in regard to any sin of this sort that he commits — if he does this and realizes his guilt, he must restore what he has stolen or gained by extortion, or the deposit entrusted to him, or the lost property which he found, or anything at all concerning which he swore a false oath. He must make full restitution, adding one fifth of the value to it, and give it back to the aggrieved party on the day when he realizes his guilt. He must bring to the priest as his reparation-offering to the LORD a ram without blemish from the flock, valued by you, as a reparation-offering. When the priest makes expiation for his guilt before the LORD, he will be forgiven for any act for which he has realized his guilt.
This is about reparation. One can’t be reconciled to God until one has addressed the harm that one has done to others. Later scriptures go even further, focusing even more on the underlying aspects of community and justice.
“O Israel and Judah, what should I do with you?” asks the LORD. “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight. I sent my prophets to cut you to pieces— to slaughter you with my words, with judgments as inescapable as light. I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings."
In fact, this is the attitude of the rabbis towards Torah that shaped the Jewish world in which Jesus lived and taught, A minor tractate of the Talmud preserves words attributed to a leading Rabbi just 40 years after the time of Jesus’ ministry. When the temple in Jerusalem is destroyed, the centre of liturgical Jewish religion ceases to exist. There can be no more sacrifice and no more priesthood, on which a significant majority of the ritual, religious law relies. It’s a cataclysmic and sudden change, but this is how the Jewish tradition adapts to it:
It happened once that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem, followed by R. Joshua, and he beheld the Temple in ruins. "Woe to us," cried R. Joshua, "for this house that lies in ruins, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel!" Rabban Johanan said to him, "My son, be not grieved, for we have another means of atonement which is as effective, and that is, the practice of lovingkindness, as it is stated, ‘For I desire lovingkindness and not sacrifice.’"
from Avot Rabbi Nathan (5)
That’s the quotation from Hosea 6:6, there at the end of that passage. What do you do when your temple is destroyed and your entire society changes irrevocably, but your religion is still vibrant, and meaningful, and connects you to God? You change your perspective. You don’t read Torah without Hosea, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos. You reframe your worldview, in continuity with your tradition.
So why did I tell you this big long story about Jewish scripture, interpretation, sacrificial systems? Because we are a part of this story, and these stories are a part of our faith heritage. As Christians, we’re part of that same tradition of following the trajectories of our scriptural heritage, the practice of growing, and changing, and finding new meaning.
The famous 13th century Jewish writer, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as Maimonides, or simply Rambam) explicitly taught that sacrifices were always supposed to have been a temporary provision for a particular time to lead God’s people away from sacrificial systems. If Jesus remains away, where will our faith tradition be in a thousand years?
Change is important, new ideas and new situations are important, because it pushes us to examine our faith and change our behaviours.
Teacher and writer Jared Byas has a snappy phrase. He says, “All theology has an adjective.” What he means is that we find it very easy to label and box different views/perspectives that are different to ours, without realising that we live within our own box. In talking about what it means to be a Christian, we could talk about Black theology, feminist theology, womanist theology, queer theology, liberation theology; about other Christian communities and worship practice. But more than that, Jared’s quip challenges me to ask what adjective describes my Christian faith. My white, Western (and very male) theology is not more significant, or even more historical.
We all have a lot to learn, from each other, and from people whose experiences of life and faith are different to ours: whether economically or socially, or by race, gender, nationality, or any other aspect that makes up the diversity of a humanity made in the image of God. Just like Abraham and the ancient Israelites, just like the priests and prophets of the Old Testament, we will face conflicting thoughts/ideas. We have a choice about how we focus our faith tradition, how we worship God, how we continue the story of the people of God.
We may find we need to radically change our focus or even repent, as we try to heed the apostle's call to grow together, as individuals and a community, into the fullness of Christ. Dr James Cone, was a 20th century Black theology writer and teacher, and a civil rights activist from the 1960s until his death just a few years ago. Cone was a Christian leader too, and here’s what he writes about the power of the gospel.
I believe that Christian theology achieves its distinctive identity when it takes on the issues of those who are struggling to be human in an oppressive world. Christians believe that their faith has something to say about this world and about the human beings in it – something that can make a decisive difference in the quality of life. It is therefore the task of theology to demonstrate the difference that the gospel can and does make in human lives, using the resources of the scriptures and traditions of the churches as well as other modern tools of social, historical, cultural, economic, and philosophical analysis.
James Cone, For My People (1984)
I can’t read this without thinking of the words of the apostle Paul, back in Ephesians 4 where we started. I can’t help but believe that this expansive vision of Christian community, and its responsibility to shine into this world the light of the gospel of life in Jesus Christ, exhorts us continually to grow through change.
...you must be renewed in mind and spirit, and put on the new nature created in God’s likeness, which shows itself in the upright and devout life called for by the truth.