year of bible: the open road…

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The last couple of weeks have seen us walk through the book of Exodus. For those of you who may read this blog but don’t read the bible I’ll try to summarise it. Basically God listens to the cries of his people who are in slavery, send along his chosen man (Moses: Hebrew/adopted Egyptian/man of few words and winder up and calmer down of God) to lead them out of Egypt. We have the big party tricks (the ten plagues), the great escape (the Red Sea crossing) and then…well, and then things become…interesting.

A traditional reading of the text tells us that the Israelites settle down for a while in the wilderness where God starts to give them their ’religion’ and provides for their needs. Amongst that is the setting up of the tabernacle, the establishment of the system of priesthood, sacrifices and festivals which would define Israel’s relationship with its God.

This is all about, we’re told, God establishment his covenant community, about marking Israel as ‘his’, about making them the beacon of his light that he has always called them to be. This usually becomes a preach about being part of the new covenant in Christ, becoming his holy people.

I’m not suggesting anything new, or even discounting this message at all…but I wonder if there’s something else to be found here.

What if we were to read this as a story of the people of God seeking to restrain that God? What if Exodus and the remaining books written by ‘Moses’ (the Pentateuch) are actually much more about religion, about creating rules that in effect serve to keep us safe from God? It’s almost as if the authors (probably post Babylonian exile editors) are constructing a new paradigm for a new people – setting down the laws, practices and system that will guide them as they seek to understand the cataclysm they have experienced.

Fascinatingly, Israel has a habit of seeking to restrain God, of boxing him up in rules and regulations and ultimately a building (here the tabernacle, later the temple). This becomes the centre of the cult, with Priests and Levites becoming inbetweeners – standing between man and God and God and man. It becomes the place on earth where God resides, the touching place between the eternal and mortal. As the story progresses, we learn how devastated the people are when the temple is destroyed – symbolising God leaving his people, complete (and explained as deserved) abandonment.

We see this also with the desire for a King during Samuel’s time – the desire for a perfect leader (Messiah) which leads them to reject Jesus when he turns up. They want something, a barrier perhaps, between this divine presence and them – they’re terrified. They want what all the other nations have – a temple, a priesthood, a king, religion.

Israel’s journey, though, is different. It’s a story of man and God conversing directly. An open road. God calling, Abraham following. Jacob wrestling. God ahead, beckoning his people on. Not buildings, but people. Not priests, but normal folk. God everywhere. God in all of creation.

And when Jesus does turn up he’s exactly this. He seeks to dismantle barriers, to destroy religion and yet fulfil everything. He beckons the people back to the open road, to following wherever this siren God calls. Out of the restraints and out of the boxes. Temples destroyed, priesthood opened to all. Away from comfort to the wilderness. Only one sacrifice necessary.

Maybe this is the message to us today. Maybe we’ve settled for a domesticated, religious god – a god who can be limited and explained and is full of certainty. This is far easier for us to cope with. We can predict what that god is up to. We can even claim to control it.

Far less disruptive and disturbing.

But that isn’t God. That isn’t the Jesus who calls to us.

He’s full of disturbance and disruption, power and uncertainty. Full of unexplained and vastness and…well…words run out. There is no logic, no reason…and yet he makes glorious sense. He’s in the dust and the dirt, amongst the great and the good but perhaps more so amongst the worst and the least.

I ask myself this: am I temple orientated? Do I cling to religion? Do I grasp for those things which bring order?

Or am I part of a people who are seeking to hear the whisper of a Presence ‘out there’, wherever and however dark it may be?

Am I out on the open road?

Please God, yes.

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4 thoughts on “year of bible: the open road…

  1. Well it is half term so I have time to reflect on your latest piece. Tried to cut it down but failed badly.

    Unless you are claiming that the post exilic writers are making it all up to justify the cultic practices of their time then one has to accept that God initiated the cultic practices found in Exodus and the raising up of intermediaries such as Abraham and Moses to stand between a holy God and ordinary humanity. The biblical accounts seem to acknowledge the importance of God choosing representatives for him on earth. The problem may come from when the intermediaries become too self important or the object of idolatry from the people.

    The coming of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit in the new story of God’s encounter with his people, the New Testament, initiates a new phase in the God/human encounter. Jesus puts God back at the centre not institutions? But that does not necessarily mean the institutions are bad, they are corporate entities of collective encounter.

    Institutions make an easy target for those of us who have been indoctrinated in western enlightenment autonomy. We tend to worship individualism rather than the corporate. We tend to embrace freedom rather than duty and tend to want to discover for ourselves rather than be told by others. The result of child centred rearing I feel!

    Institutions serve as guides, as mentors, as communities of ordinary people. It is the people’s attitude to them that causes the problem. Priesthood of all believers involves people drawing together to use the spiritual gifts God has given each of us to serve each other. The community of faith meet to help each member to reflect on both corporate and individual divine encounter.

    The path we walk must weave between the total submission to individualism and the total submission to community. Jesus’ life exemplifies the right balance between the two.

    Happy to chat over a beer when I’m back in Exeter.

    Richard

    1. I think that I’m suggesting that the authors were seeking to justify the cultic practices that had built up around the Jewish experience of Yahweh…but ‘making it up’ might be a bit…strong. I think that there were key people like a historical Abraham and even Moses, that naturally they were used as spokes people to commission and endorse temple practices. We do this all the time in church!

      I’m not sure that I’m a worshiper of individualism – as a bit of a Marxist I’m actually deeply and passionately committed to community, and see the usefulness of institution. My concern (and perhaps my current ‘project’ is this!) is that we worship institution and find safety within it from the dangerous God we are called out to follow. And as a bit of an evangelical universalist I do see the act of salvation as communal (WE are saved/being saved as opposed to I).

      The reality, of course, is that every community develops institutional practices – shared values/sacraments/language etc. we have to be aware of this, and not use them to hide behind and replace the divine inspiration.

      1. Hi there, I was deliberately provocative to see where the discussion would go.

        I still think there is a difference between accepting the historicity of people and whether they said and did what is claimed. Either they acted on behalf of God commissioning something new from God or they did not.

        I get what you are saying about institutions, Many of my friends would laugh that I seem to be defending them rather than critiquing them. If we accept that the human condition is presently flawed then all human communities will also be and thus fall short of God’s ideal. The question is how we respond, do we go or do we stay?

        Roger Olsen wrote recently that the biggest heresy in the American church is that of shaping the church to imitate middle class cultural values which seems to be a parallel of what you are saying.

        Socialism rather than Marxism is more palitable to me. With a growing middle class I think Marx’s economic critique has less value but then again bankers!!!!! Power structures rather than economic structures are more interesting to me and class consciousness is dead for me. Equality of opportunity is more of a concern than equality of outcome because that is a fantasy in my opinion (slight digression but fun anyway)

        Comfortable middle class christianity is the idolatry many of us face but then again we all have our different idols. Every persons’ strengths are also their weaknesses.

        Right have to go and cook lunch.

        Have a great half term with the family

      2. Ha…provocative…toi?! Humans have a tendency to sometimes want to hang more authority on their words – hence the claims that ‘so and so said once’. Just think of all those dodgy Einstein quotes going around! I also discovered that St Francis never said anything about ‘using words when necessary’!

        I think in fairness that I am probably more socialist than Marxist – although there is a point to be made by some that equality of opportunity can never be achieved – hence the need for equality of outcome. I’m with you – although feeling instinctively that equality of opportunity will need some friendly nudges from time time.

        Enjoy your break too – and we will catch up for a beer when you are back in town.

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