GOD’S MESSIAH: SCRIPTURES FOCUS
Second sermon of three on the Bible, based on Luke 24, preached Jan 22, 2012
Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel, opens with an account of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ disciples weren’t actually convinced at first, and dismissed the resurrection as speculative rumour. In fact Luke 24 reports that two of the disciples gave up at this point, left Jerusalem utterly dejected, and went home. Along with the rest of Jesus’ disciples, they’d come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had thus followed him. Their hopes collapsed however, as they watched him being arrested, being treated as a common criminal, and being hung on a cross. Whatever the Messiah was meant to accomplish, this wasn’t it! Being Messiah surely meant winning a victory for God, not ending up as a victim. And so, reports Luke, Jesus’ disciples began to disperse. Others had claimed to be the Messiah before Jesus; others would do so after him. All failed. A crucified Jesus, despite his remarkable ministry, was obviously another failure. What a disappointment!
People still get disappointed with Jesus. At some stage in life, many are attracted to Jesus, even though they don’t call themselves Christians. Maybe, they reckon, Jesus is worth reading about, pursuing, even praying to. Maybe Jesus can connect us to God, whom we assume to be all powerful and all loving. Deep down, what we’re hoping for is a God to intervene on our behalf when we need help; so why not make a friend in Jesus? We like to have friends in high places. But it doesn’t always work out. Illness comes; tragedy strikes; a life is cut short, and our expectations of God are shattered. All our praying in the name of Jesus appears to have been a waste of time. And so like the two disciples walking home to Emmaus, we walk away disappointed. Depending on our make-up, we reckon that God doesn’t find us loveable, or conclude that the powerful God we thought the Bible taught is a fraud.
What about the disappointed disciples walking home to Emmaus? With heads, hands, and hearts drooping, they were joined on their walk by the risen Jesus, says Luke, though the two disciples didn’t recognize him. “ Why such long faces?” Jesus asked. “Because we were followers of Jesus”, they replied, “disciples of ‘a prophet mighty in deed and word’ whom ‘our chief priests and leaders handed...over to be condemned to death...we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’...And then ‘some women of our group astounded us’ by reporting that Jesus was alive. It’s all a mess!”. Note how Jesus responded to them. He wasn’t offended by their disappointment in him; nor did he dismiss their doubts. Sometimes we’re urged not to question faith claims, and told that to entertain doubt is the slippery slope toward atheism. Luke 24, however, reports that Jesus took time to listen to his disciples’ questions and doubts. But more than that, having listened to them, Jesus told his confused disciples that they had misunderstood Scripture, particularly in relation to the Messiah. Luke 24:25:
Oh, how foolish you are [he said] how slow...to believe all that the prophets
have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer...and then
enter into his glory? Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he
interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
It’s a fascinating verse. I mean, imagine being at a seminar where Jesus explains the meaning of the whole Bible? That would be a great way to spend a mini-sabbatical!
According to Jesus, his disciples had misread Scripture, that is, the Old Testament. Jews of course, were taught Scripture at home and at synagogue. But Scripture can be misinterpreted, and misinterpretation is sometimes passed on from one generation to the next. Why does that happen? It happens because it takes effort, imagination, and patience to interpret Scripture. In addition, all readers of Scripture, no matter how pious, read Scripture with preconceived ideas, which they then impose on the text. Jesus’ earliest disciples did it; so do we.
Example: In the King James Version of the Bible, III John 2 says: ‘Beloved, I wish ...that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth’. Some in the Republic to the south of us who use the King James, believe that in that text God promises us prosperity, financial prosperity. This verse, says Gloria Copeland, means “God’s plan is for us to grow financially as we grow spiritually.” That’s a misreading. III John is a personal letter from John to his friend Gaius that reflects the letter-writing conventions of the day. And so it opens with John expressing a desire that all is well with Gaius and that he may enjoy bodily as well as spiritual health. There’s no general, divine promise of prosperity here, simply a friend’s desire for another friends well-being. So why the misreading? Well, because some have the preconceived idea that America is uniquely called by God and has the divine right to enjoy prosperity. For such folk, III John 2 perfectly anticipates the American dream.
We’re all guilty to some degree of imposing our ideas on Scripture, and finding there what we want to find. Likewise with Jesus’ first disciples. They knew that the Old Testament promised the coming of an anointed prophet like Moses, only greater; they knew that the Old Testament promised the coming of an anointed king like David, only greater. Good! But on that foundation, massive Jewish speculation had followed about the Anointed One to come. [By the way Messiah is Hebrew for anointed] Some speculated that the Messiah would be supernatural and superhuman; more common was the view that the Messiah would be a military leader, able to confront and defeat Israel’s enemies. When the two disciples told the unrecognized stranger walking with them that they hoped that Jesus was the Messiah who would redeem Israel, they were expressing the common expectation that the Messiah would set Israel free from its Roman oppressors and set Israel up as God’s perfect kingdom. Redemption for them meant political and nationalist freedom, achieved under the Messiah’s leadership. In their interpretation of Scripture therefore, there was no place for a crucified Messiah and no need of a resurrected one.
“You’re wrong”, said Jesus; “You’ve mistaken Scripture”. Luke reports that Jesus proceeded to correct their biblical interpretation. May I suggest that some of our disappointment with God springs from a failure to correctly understand Scripture. May I suggest that the way to avoid this is to pay attention to how Jesus interpreted Scripture. “If you want to know what Scripture is about”, said Jesus, “you need to know that it’s not primarily about you and your personal needs; it’s about God and God’s overarching mission to heal a broken world and redeem sinful people”. I talked about this last Sunday using the sermon title, God’s Mission: Scripture’s Framework. But Jesus goes further than that in Luke 24; he says that at the core of the overarching story of Scripture, making sense of it all, is the story of a suffering and resurrected Messiah. If you don’t focus on the Messiah, you’ll miss Scripture’s point.
Luke 24 doesn’t indicate that Jesus then gave the two disciples a list of specific Old Testament verses that speak of the coming Messiah. Rather, says Luke, Jesus took the disciples on a whirlwind tour of the whole Old Testament, showing how both the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled by the Messiah. Later in Luke 24, we’re told that Jesus repeated the point to a larger group of disciples in Jerusalem, adding that not only the law and the prophets but the Psalms also point toward a suffering and resurrected Messiah. In other words, the Messiah is the focal point of Scripture.
God’s Messiah came; the great prophet, the great king. But instead of ruling grandly from above, the Messiah stooped to become a servant. The Messiah’s style turned out to be so different from Israel’s triumphalist expectations. Incomprehensibly, the Messiah gave himself in sacrifice, pouring all of heaven’s power and love into a seemingly pointless death, thereby absorbing and removing the power of sin and evil.
Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood
Sealed my pardon with his blood, Hallelujah! Loving Saviour!
No one anticipated anything like this. Supremacy, not sacrifice, had been what Jews expected of the Messiah; power rather than pardon.
The thing is, even now we resist such a Jesus. We convince ourselves that though we could do with a bit of divine help from time to time, we don’t need a Saviour. We can go it alone! We can do it, do anything we put our mind to! With that preconceived idea, we’re always going to misunderstand Scripture and diminish the Messiah. That’s true even of some theologians! Richard Hayes of Duke University says that
Stories about the resurrection of a man crucified, dead, and buried contradict
everything that...historians take to be axiomatic about the nature of history and
the reality in which we live. For that reason,...recent...theology is replete with attempts to reinterpret the meaning of the New Testament’s resurrection stories in ways that will not conflict with a modern scientific worldview.
Hayes refers to theologians who, embarrassed by a suffering, sacrificing, resurrected Jesus, seek to radically reinterpret Scripture so that it no longer challenges or contradicts their preconceived ideas. Far more honest, it seems to me, is to patiently listen to what Scripture actually says and attend to how Jesus interpreted it, even if, at the end of the day, you then set it aside.
One more point: according to Jesus, the whole Old Testament points to the Messiah, his death and resurrection. But the story doesn’t end there. If Israel’s long, sprawling Old testament story leads to the events that happened to Jesus in Jerusalem, then, adds Jesus, the story flows on from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Luke 24:45:
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and...said...“Thus
it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead...and that
repentance and forgiveness of sins...be proclaimed...to all nations, beginning
In other words, the story of Israel, the story of Jesus, and the ongoing story of the church’s global witness are all connected. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t an isolated miracle away back then; it’s the disclosure, writes Richard Hayes, ‘of God’s purpose finally to subdue death and to embrace us within the life of the resurrection’. It’s a story that connects the Old Testament to the New, and that connects both to us. It’s a story for the whole world, said Jesus, not just Israel. Its also the good news story by which we ought to live, and which our worship weekly celebrates.