Sunday, October 12, 2008

Exalt the Word and the Emperor's New Clothes

The Bible passage for the sermon:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have come to fulfil them. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5.17-20

Sometimes people talk about the Bible not as a single big book but as a collection of books. That makes it sound a bit like this book. My grandmother’s book of Tales from Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a collection of stories but I don’t suppose there’s anyone here who likes stories is there?

Oh alright then, shall I tell you one of the stories?

Once upon a time, there was a King who was too vain. He always wanted to wear new suits.

The capital of his Kingdom was very wealthy and attracted many visitors. One day two rascals came to offer the King a wonderful fabric. The weavers said that their fabric was magical, and Not only were their colours and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

"Those would be just the clothes for me," thought the Emperor. "If I wore them I would be able to discover which men in my empire are unfit for their posts. And I could tell the wise men from the fools. Yes, I certainly must get some of the stuff woven for me right away." He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once. They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms. All the finest silk and the purest gold thread which they demanded went into their traveling bags, while they worked the empty looms far into the night.

"I'd like to know how those weavers are getting on with the cloth," the Emperor thought, but he felt slightly uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were unfit for their position would not be able to see the fabric. It couldn't have been that he doubted himself, yet he thought he'd rather send someone else to see how things were going.

"I'll send my honest old minister to the weavers," the Emperor decided. "He'll be the best one to tell me how the material looks, for he's a sensible man and no one does his duty better."
So the honest old minister went to the room where the two swindlers sat working away at their empty looms.
"Heaven help me," he thought as his eyes flew wide open, "I can't see anything at all". But he did not say so.

"Don't hesitate to tell us what you think of it," said one of the weavers.
"Oh, it's beautiful -it's enchanting." The old minister peered through his spectacles. "Such a pattern, what colours!" I'll be sure to tell the Emperor how delighted I am with it."
"We're pleased to hear that," the swindlers said. They proceeded to name all the colors and to explain the intricate pattern. The old minister paid the closest attention, so that he could tell it all to the Emperor. And so he did.

The weavers worked day and night. They used thousands of balls of silk, and yards of gold and silver threads. All the town was talking of this splendid cloth, and the Emperor wanted to see it for himself while it was still in the looms. Attended by a band of chosen men, among whom was his old trusted official-the one who had been to the weavers-he set out to see the two swindlers. He found them weaving, but without a thread in their looms.
"Magnificent," said the official already duped. "Just look, Your Majesty, what colours! What a design!" He pointed to the empty looms, supposing that the others could see the stuff.
"What's this?" thought the Emperor. "I can't see anything. This is terrible!
Am I a fool? Am I unfit to be the Emperor? What a thing to happen to me of all people! - Oh! It's very pretty," he said. "It has my highest approval." And he nodded at the empty loom. Nothing could make him say that he couldn't see anything.

His whole retinue stared and stared. One saw no more than another, but they all joined the Emperor in exclaiming, "Oh! It's very pretty," and they advised him to wear clothes made of this wonderful cloth especially for the great procession he was soon to lead. "Magnificent! Excellent!
and everyone did his best to seem well pleased. The Emperor gave each of the swindlers a cross to wear in his buttonhole, and the title of "Sir Weaver."

Before the procession the swindlers sat up all night and burned more than six candles, to show how busy they were finishing the Emperor's new clothes. They pretended to take the cloth off the loom. They made cuts in the air with huge scissors. And at last they said, "Now the Emperor's new clothes are ready for him."
Then the Emperor himself came with his noblest noblemen, and the swindlers each raised an arm as if they were holding something. They said, "These are the trousers, here's the coat, and this is the mantle," naming each garment. "All of them are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that's what makes them so fine."
"Exactly," all the noblemen agreed, though they could see nothing, for there was nothing to see.
"If Your Imperial Majesty will condescend to take your clothes off," said the swindlers, "we will help you on with your new ones here in front of the long mirror.”
The Emperor undressed, and the swindlers pretended to put his new clothes on him, one garment after another. They took him around the waist and seemed to be fastening something - that was his train-as the Emperor turned round and round before the looking glass.
"How well Your Majesty's new clothes look. Aren't they becoming!" He heard on all sides, "That pattern, so perfect! Those colors, so suitable! It is a magnificent outfit."

"Well, I'm supposed to be ready," the Emperor said, and turned again for one last look in the mirror. "It is a remarkable fit, isn't it?" He seemed to regard his costume with the greatest interest.
The noblemen who were to carry his train stooped low and reached for the floor as if they were picking up his mantle. Then they pretended to lift and hold it high. They didn't dare admit they had nothing to hold. So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, "Oh, how fine are the Emperor's new clothes! Don't they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!" Nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.
"But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said.
"Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, "He hasn't anything on. A child says he hasn't anything on."
"But he hasn't got anything on!" the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.

That is a wonderful story and it has an important message to remember but the bible isn’t really like this book is it? It’s so much more than a collection of stories.

The text I’m given this morning is certainly a challenging one. Especially with the theme of Exalting the Word It’s a very definite message isn’t it?

“Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven”

There’s no going against something so definite as that, is there? That’s a statement that Jesus wants upheld. No question.

Jesus tells his disciples that they must uphold the law and the prophets. Jesus, who was positively drenched in the Hebrew Scriptures, urges his disciples to be likewise. The Law and the Prophets must not be set aside as irrelevant but breathed through all that the disciples themselves teach in the future. It certainly sounds very clear.

Can you tell I’m about to put a slight question into that?

The question I want to pose is what does Jesus mean by fulfilling the law rather than abolishing it? Certainly a lot of the Pharisees who objected to Jesus and his ministry would have said that he seemed to be working against the law he says he comes to fulfil. He works on the Sabbath, he does not seem to observe the temple customs, he eats with those who are unclean and consorts with people of very dubious character. Jesus didn’t seem to be fulfilling the law at all in their eyes. He is the little child from the story that says what others won't

Well a good way to understand Jesus’ fulfilment of the law is look at where this passage comes. This passage is from the Sermon on the Mount. It follows on fairly soon after the beatitudes. Now if the Pharisees had heard that one they might well have thought Jesus was overturning the law. I think it’s fair. He turns the laws upside down and soon after we hear Jesus’ most memorable overturning of the law. When he says, you have heard the law an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say do not resist an evil person If anyone slaps you on the cheek turn the other cheek.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him
John 3 16-17

Throughout his ministry, Jesus places the law and the prophets into a new light. He makes people look at things a different way. How can we look at things in this different way?


Jesus isn’t abolishing the law of the Old Testament but revealing it as God always intended it. If we look back to the beginnings of John’s Gospel, we get a clear idea about how we can truly exalt the Word of God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jesus is the word. It is him we exalt when we read our scriptures.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
The Pharisees and teachers of the law had a very literal way of reading the law. It was a black and white, right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous, clean and unclean, Jew and gentile way of reading the law. Jesus comes and turns that over. That’s not Jesus’ view of the Law. Jesus sees and shows the scriptures as being fulfilled in Him and interpreted through his teaching. He sees all the human foibles and failings that have found their way into the law; the unloving desire for vengeance which has seen an eye for an eye and the legalistic piety that has allowed Pharisees to consider it better NOT to help a sick person on a Saturday because it is the Sabbath.

So how doe we exalt the word without finding ourselves falling into that Pharisaical trap? How do we maintain our own righteousness without looking down on those we consider unrighteous. Jesus makes it clear. We ARE called to be righteous in the eyes of God. That part of the law is not overturned. The fulfilling of it though is in being righteous AND accepting the fallenness of others without condemnation but with the Gospel of love.

How do we weak humans achieve that though? Well, I believe it’s through the power of the Holy Spirit. To me that still small voice inside me which challenges me when I stray. It’s probably not a great idea to tell people I hear voices but I do have this voice inside me that sometimes says. Are you sure you need to do that? Perhaps you should… That voice is there sometimes and I try to listen to it when it’s there but I know there are times when I reject it and go my own way. As I’ve got older, I’ve tried to listen to it more and more. It’s usually at a time when I am trying to do something which I think I’m going to enjoy and following the voice might spoil my fun because I have to think of somebody else instead but in the long run I know I would rather I HAD thought of that somebody else instead.

It’s that Holy Spirit which we need most of all when we consider the Law and the Prophets. The Holy Spirit is what was lacking when the Pharisees interpreted the law. A good way of doing that is to read our Bibles not as a legal code or an historical document or a challenge to be completed but in small pieces, to be savoured. There’s a very ancient practice which the Benedictine Order has used for hundreds of years called Lectio Divina; divine reading.

Lectio Divina is a way of spending time with the Word of God, by reading it slowly – very slowly.
Choose a piece of scripture – perhaps from the Sunday service, or a programme of readings, or one of your favourites, or just look through the Gospels and see what attracts you. Then find a comfortable and quiet place. Begin by taking a bit of time to become as quiet as you can, but don’t worry if you still feel edgy or distracted – Lectio starts where you are now. Often, listening to your own pattern of breathing, without trying to change it, is a good way to start. We are making space to allow the words we encounter to take root in us.
We are not trying to agree or disagree, make notes or analyse. We simply want to listen.
• we read a little;
• we stop reading and allow our deepest response to surface;
• we respond in prayer;
• we listen;
• then we read a little more...
It is a way to let go of our own preoccupations and allow God to begin a conversation.
We let a word or a sentence stay with us and focus on that word.

If we read the bible this way we know in our hearts that we exalt the word of God, in text and in person as more than just stories rather as doorways to meeting with God through his Holy Spirit.

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