Sunday, July 19, 2009

Worship in spirit and truth

Something happened in Nablus this week. The car parks were full, the coach station was busy and the shops were teeming. It was the first time that had happened for nine years.

Nablus is a major town and shopping centre in the West Bank. Why that news from Palestine and Israel caught my eye was that Nablus is home to a tiny remnant of Samaritans. They are still there … just!

It’s somewhere near there that Jesus met the Woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well and had a conversation that in all sorts of ways went to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about.

I want to take a close look at one little bit of that conversation and see what it has to say about the way we serve God and more particularly what it has to say about our worship.

Jesus ‘left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.’

Israel was a united monarchy under Saul, David and then Solomon – and then there was a big bust up. The southern kingdom came to be known as ‘Judah’ and was the small area around Jerusalem. The dynasty of David continued uninterrupted until the eventual downfall of Judah and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the invading Babylonians.

The Northern Kingdom came to be known as Samaria. Its history was more chequered with coups d’etat and often corrupt governments. It didn’t last as long and fell in the 700’s to the Assyrian power.

While the worship of the people of Judah focused on the Temple in Jerusalem as the place where the presence of God was focused, the covenant relationship with God was symbolised, and the sacrifices that secured that relationship were carried out, for the people of the North there were other holy places, other temples, and one in particular associated with the holy mountain of Shechem, here known as Sychar, not far from the modern city of Nablus.

When the exiles from Judah and Jerusalem were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rejoin those who had stayed all along they rebuilt the temple, and that was again the focus for the presence of God, the covenant with God, and the sacrifices to God.

Other exiles returned to what had been Samaria, and settled in the territory immediately around their holy mountain and temple in Shechem as far as they were concerned the focus for God’s presence, the covenant with God, and the sacrifices to God was on that holy mountain, in that holy place.

They had preserved a slightly different rendering of the five books of the law and what’s more they did not regard any of the prophetic books as being part of their holy scriptures. The scriptures just amounted to the books of the law.

Not a lot of love was lost between the Samaritans and the Jewish people. But the Samartian territory cut right across the middle of Palestine. To get back from Jerusalem and Judah to Galilee you either had to walk up the Jordan valley, or you had to go through the Samaritan territory.

Jesus chose to go through Samaritan territory. He was making his way from Mount Zion and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the holy mount that was for the Jewish people the focus for the presence of God, the covenant with God and the sacrifices to God, up north to his homeland of Galilee where once more he would be with fellow Jewish people.

It was near the site of Jacob’s well, not far from Shechem and the holy mountain of the Samaritan people that Jesus met up with this woman from Samaria.

The conversation touches on personal things and the life that Jesus has to share with all people, Samaritan and Jew alike. For the Samaritan woman that was a divide too far.

The chasm between the Samaritan people and the Jewish people was one that was not possible to bridge.

So she says these words to Jesus …

‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’

That’s the divide in a nutshell.

Samaritans and Jewish people alike were convinced that The Presence of God, the Covenant with God and the Sacrifices to God were focused in one particular location. For the Samaritans it was and still is at Shechem – modern-day Nablus, for the Jewish people it was and still is in Jerusalem.

Jesus then challenges the assumption the woman makes. He challenges her assumption that that divide is unbridgeable. In doing that he voices the unthinkable. He offers something that is recognisably in continuity with all that had gone on in the past, but at the same time is something new.

Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

Woman, Jesus addresses her directly. Believe me. He has something to offer, but it calls for her to step out in trust towards something new.

The hour is coming … that was a phrase that immediately would ring a bell – it was the phrase used to speak of the fulfilment of ancient hopes. That hour is coming. Believe me.

The point of continuity with the past is in the worship. You will continue to worship. But your worship will now find its focus somewhere different.

The presence of God, the covenant with God, the sacrifice to God will no longer be location specific – it will no longer be focused on the Temple in Jerusalem or on the Holy Mount of Shechem.

The God at the heart of the temple worship was an awesome God whose name could not be uttered – the location was in the holiest of holy places – no one could enter.

Jesus is opening up a new sense of the presence, a new covenant relationship and he will be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – and the God who is the focus of this worship people will regard not as YHWH, not as Lord, but as Father. Abba. Father.

Something special is opening up here.

This new way of worship creates a bridge that will span the divide between Samaritan and Jew.

Then comes a curious statement from Jesus. And yet it is a fundamentally important one for us to realise … especially if we are drawn to the process of bridge-building.

At first sight Jesus seems to be arrogant, rude even, in what he says to the woman.

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’

Jesus the bridge builder is being honest. He does not pretend that he occupies the middle ground. He is clear about his own roots. Jesus is Jewish.

This is one of the most explicit statements of that in the Gospel.

How tragic that the church lost sight of that truth down through the centuries.

The Jewishness of Jesus is something we need to constantly remind ourselves of.

And Jesus knows his Judaism.

What is he getting at when he says, ‘Salvation is from the Jews’.

Jesus is laying claim to the entirety of the Jewish story of salvation as it is told in all of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Samartans had their own version of the first five books and regarded only those books of the law as Holy Scripture.

They had not kept any of the writings of the prophets, let alone the miscellany of writings that make up the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus counted himself among those Jewish people who regarded the Prophets and for that matter the writings as part of the Holy Scriptures of his people. For him the prophets had to be read alongside the law. The prophets were as much part of the story of salvation, the salvation history, as the books of the Law.

The prophets had in turn taken up the mantle laid down by Elijah, John the Baptist had taken up the mantle of the prophets … and Jesus had taken it up too. The woman at the well had just before in the conversation recognised Jesus as a prophet.

The story of God’s salvation comes through the whole of the Jewish Scriptures: Jesus claims to be the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

To build bridges he does not deny his heritage, but he affirms it.

Often when people seek to be bridge builders they imagine that it involves denying what you stand for and who you are.

In building bridges with other churches it is important to know where you stand and what has made you the Christian you are. In building bridges across the divide between religions, it is much more effective to stand firm in your own convictions as a Christian and to start from there.

As he bridged the divide between Jew and Samaritan Jesus did not deny his Jewishness he affirmed it. And he did so for a very specific reason.

That reason now becomes apparent.

Once again he uses that phrase that indicates the fulfilment of ancient hopes. Now he is even more explicit.

But the hour is coming, and is now here,

Notice how the drama increases, he ups the ante. The hour is coming and is now here!

when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

What a wonderful statement Jesus makes.

It has to be one of my favourite verses.

Now we are coming back to the very heart of worship.

But how do we worship in spirit and truth?

What’s involved? What is Jesus getting at?

Let’s pay careful attention to the line of thought …

The woman gets the point Jesus is making, though at first sight it is maybe difficult to see the connection with what she says next.

She goes on to say,

‘I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ), when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

The reference to worshipping in spirit and truth prompts the woman to think of the prophets and their talk of a coming Messiah.

And Jesus says, You’ve got it! That’s right. That’s what I’m getting at!

“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

That phrase he uses – I am – is the emphatic I am that is the very name of God in the books of the law.

This is life-changing for the woman.

This is the moment of breakthrough … the bridge-bulding complete. So much so that she wants to share it with her friends back home in the Samaritan city.

So what is Jesus getting at when he asks us to worship in spirit and truth.

If the comments of Jesus about worshipping in spirit and truth trigger off in the mind of the woman thoughts about the prophets what do we make of that?

We have just encountered a reference to the whole of the Jewish story of salvation – including the Prophets as well as the books of the law.

Jesus has been described as a prophet.

The nuts and bolts of what to do in worship are spelled out in the books of the law. It is the prophets who go to the spirit of worship, and they challenge the people to think of the truth of what they are doing.

Nowhere is that more powerfully expressed than in Amos 5:21-24

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24

James saw it.

To worship in spirit and in truth we must be doers of the word and not mere hearers. Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. James 1:22-25

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:27

Paul saw it

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

To worship in spirit and truth we must, in more words from Amos.5, seek good and not evil, we must hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate.

Which takes us back to Nablus this week. The car parks are full, the coach station crowded and the shops bursting at the seams for the first time in nine years because soldiers at the Israeli road blocks have waved people through. And that has to do with the new policies of President Obama … and the pressure he is bringing on the state of Israel.

How are we going to worship in spirit and truth as this week unfolds: what is the justice we take our stand on as we live out our faith and are doers not merely hearers of the word.

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