Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A Permanent Law?

I have been reading the book of Exodus again recently - a chapter a day -  trying to get into the mindset and culture of the people of Israel in the times of the Old Testament Law.

This week I have got to the part which describes the designs and rules for the tabernacle and its contents, and for the clothes which were to be made for Aaron and his sons.  The instructions are highly detailed, leaving nothing to chance, and are described as "a permanent law for the people of Israel and must be kept by all future generations". (Exodus 27:21 - New Living Translation)
Aarons robes reminded me of the vestments which my more Anglo-catholic colleagues wear adorned with gold and bright colours.  They are something which I have never quite connected with in my own spirituality, but know how much they mean to others, and here they are in scripture, as the clothes of the priests as they enter the presence of God. 

Then I thought of how different the Exodus descriptions are compared to the environment I find most conducive to worship.  My personal worship heaven would be a modern, well-lit room with comfortable chairs, arranged in a curve rather than straight constricting rows.  A good sound system and worship band to lead and inspire.  A digital projector carving pictures and words in light on a large screen, encouraging me to look up as I pray, reflect and sing.  Colourful modern banners lining the walls and a lectern standing central on the stage, bathed in the warm glow of a spotlight for the preaching of the Word. How different this is to the tabernacle in Exodus!
But then again, we all have our preferences, customs, rules and rituals when it comes to worship.

I remember an Anglo-catholic priest coming to my Evangelical theological college to preach.  He was there to help us poor low-church protestants and charismatics understand a little about what is important to those whose worship is  'further up the candle'.  Just as he started to preach, someone rushed up to him and attached a lapel microphone to his robes and then sat back down, slightly embarrassed that he had forgotten to do this earlier.
The priest paused for a moment, and then said - "You know - this is how rituals grow.  In the future this may well become part of our liturgy.  Every week, just as the preacher gets up to speak, someone with come forward and attach a small object with a wire to the preachers clothes.  By then, of course it will be highly symbolic, with lots of bowing and carefully rehearsed hand movements.  It will be engraved in artistic writing with the letters ' M I C ' but, following generations of technological developments, this will be a cryptic word which no-one uses anymore and  few understand.  A bell might sound to emphasise the importance of the moment and to call the congregation to listen carefully as the Word of God is unfolded.  Particularly devout members of the church may be moved to raise their hands into the air and cry 'Alleluia' or make the sign of the cross.  And everyone except the most scholarly of church historians will have exactly no idea why we do it!"

So what about the verses in Exodus that describe its rules for worship as ' a permanent law for all generations' ?  The truth is that every generation fashions its worship in a way which speaks to them - now even more than in the past - but shouldn't we be all obeying the permanent law of Exodus 25 to 30, particularly those who call themselves 'Bible Believing Christians'?  Are we living and worshipping in sin because we do not follow the designs and rituals of this ancient age?
In reality, if I went to preach that in any modern church, I would be dismissed as utterly mad!  On the way to being thrown out of the door, I would be pointed to John 4:23 where Jesus said that true believers will worship in spirit and truth.  I would be told that the 'permanent law' of the Old Testament is not as permanent it might first appear, and that reading the Bible in that kind of simplistic way is not what God calls us to do.

So why do we still  apply other parts of OT law as permanent fixed markers of the will of God today?  (eg Leviticus 18:22)  And why do we allow the prevailing interpretations of Scripture in our time dictate how we should read and understand the Bible in ways which imply the same permanence?
When Jesus directed us to 'spirit and truth - when Paul says we no longer live 'under the law' - we are being called to a radically new and more complex way of living under God.  It is more complex because it does not rely on legal codes, ancient or modern, but on a relationship with the living God.

Perhaps that is why we need the 'new heart' of flesh that we are promised in Ezekiel 36:26 to replace our heart of stone.  

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