Archive for January, 2018

Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom

The Christian world view is that we live in a world of signs
Words of prophecy from the Scriptures are constantly being fulfilled in our present world

Of course we are only aware of this if the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, and if we have a deep knowledge of the Scriptures
Luckily, both of these things were true of the people who wrote the books of the New Testament

That fulfilment of Scripture began in the events leading up to the birth of Jesus
It continues now in our own time, in the age of the Church

The fact that the coming of Jesus Christ and his earthly ministry fulfils Scripture is our surest proof that he really did come
And that he was exactly who his followers, then and now, believed him to be

That’s why the writers of the gospels are often so short on the kind of details that would appeal to modern readers like us
The details of what Jesus wore or what he liked to have for his tea don’t really interest the kind of readers they have in mind
It’s the fulfilment of prophecy in the words and works of Jesus that matters

We can see this from the way the gospels begin
All the gospel writers want to make clear that the coming of Jesus Christ fulfils the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures
Although they do it in different ways

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy
A family tree which locates Jesus among many biblical stories
And also locates him within a numerical pattern which underlines the fact that his coming is the climax of history and the perfection of God’s plan for the world

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. (Matt 1.17 p. 807)

The Bible is Jesus’ family tree, and Jesus completes the family

Mark begins his gospel with John the Baptist in the wilderness by the Jordan
This episode deliberately reminds us of:
– The highway in the wilderness in Isaiah 40
– The crossing of the Jordan, when the Israelites enter Canaan for the first time
– Which is itself an episode that re-enacts the crossing of the Red Sea
– Traditions about where incidents in the life of Elijah took place (even when Scripture itself doesn’t tell

Luke gives us a series of episodes featuring ordinary people
Ordinary people who become extraordinary
Because they are chosen to play a part in the story of the coming of the Messiah

Some of these characters play a major part in the narrative
Others appear once, and then vanish
What they all have in common, is that they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and break out in prophetic speech: Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna

Actually, I realise, that isn’t true – there’s one exception. That exception is Joseph
Joseph is worried, because his fiancée is pregnant and the baby isn’t his

At this moment of crisis, he sees an angel who tells him what to do
He has to take Mary as his bride
Joseph does what he is told, and he and Mary go off to Bethlehem together

Where does the prophetic voice come into this episode?
They say actions speak louder than words; and Joseph performs a prophetic action, by accepting Mary

How do I make that out?
Let’s remind ourselves how seriously the Jewish law takes of adultery
If married people do it, the penalty for both parties is death
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Lev 20.10, p. 98 cf Deu 22.22)

If an unmarried man and woman do it, the man should pay the bride price and marry the woman – even if the act was rape and she doesn’t want to marry him

But Mary’s situation is worse than any of these
Mary is betrothed to Joseph – the bride price has been paid
If a woman in her situation is convicted of adultery, she should be taken outside the city and stoned to death:
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones (Deut 22.23-24 p. 164)

So much for the law: if that’s all Scripture said about a woman in Mary’s position, Joseph’s course would be clear
But what about the prophets?
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea all speak about adultery
But not in the same way the law does

Isaiah compares the people to an adulterous woman who has cheated on her loving husband (who of course is God):

On a high and lofty mountain

you have set your bed,

and there you went up to offer sacrifice.

Behind the door and the doorpost

you have set up your memorial;

for, deserting me, you have uncovered your bed,

you have gone up to it,

you have made it wide;

and you have made a covenant for yourself with them,

you have loved their bed,

you have looked on nakedness (Isa 57.7-8 p. 617)

In Jeremiah 2.32 (p. 629) God himself speaks, and compares his people to a woman who cannot keep her mind on her husband even on their wedding day:

Can a virgin forget her ornaments,

or a bride her attire?

Yet my people have forgotten me

days without number.

Jeremiah also compares the nation to an abandoned infant, presumably the product of an adulterous affair, who has been taken into someone’s house

And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. (Eze 16.4-5 p. 702)

When she grows up this child’s benefactor makes her his bride – but she cheats on him.

Of course none of these passages refer to any real act of sexual infidelity (though the prevalence of cult prostitutes in pagan religions may be there in the background)
The people’s unfaithfulness lies in worshipping foreign gods
The prophets liken the unfaithful people to an adulterous woman, because they can’t think of anything worse

But the surprising message of the prophets is that God stands ready to forgive, if his people will turn back to him and be faithful
The promised ending of the story is not judgement, but forgiveness and reconciliation

The most unusual account is in Hosea
God actually tells the prophet Hosea to marry an unfaithful woman, in real life:

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1.2 p. 751)

Hosea’s wife is faithless; but God commands him to be reconciled with her
And this reconciliation symbolises God’s intention to reconcile his people to himself, permanently:
“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. … And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2.16-20 p. 752)

And that, in a nutshell, tells us what it means when the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife – deliberately ignoring appearances and common sense
So that the birth of Christ is marked by a selfless act of forgiveness and reconciliation

Paul says in 2Co 5.19 (p. 966), In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself
The end of human history is that Christ takes the church, which is his people, as his bride
The end of creation history is universal reconciliation

This universal reconciliation is preconfigured in the compassion of Joseph
Joseph acts out these prophetic stories of the husband whose woman seems to have betrayed him
He believes the word of God delivered by the angel and takes Mary as his bride

All of this happened a long time ago: what does it all mean? What’s in it for us?
Some people only come to church at Christmas; it seems like a good time to make recruits
That idea always seems rather patronising to me

We don’t want bodies just to fill our empty seats
The idea of bringing people to church is, to reconcile them to God
To bring them into the kingdom; to let them share in that great act of forgiveness and mercy that began with the birth of Jesus

Though the birth of Christ was a one-off event, the reconciliation is an ongoing process
One that won’t come to an end or be complete until the whole world has been brought into God’s kingdom and reconciled in one
And there is neither Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col 3.11 p. 984)

In the meantime, we seek reconciliation in the name of Christ with all the sinners and strangers who surround us.

17 December 2017, St George’s, High Heaton. All Scripture page references are to the ESV Pew Bible.