Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jan 23 2013 - Matthew 15:1-28 – The tradition of the elders

The Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus why his disciples did not observe the tradition of the elders; they did not ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. In reply, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy. He shows that they have developed traditions which undermine the commands of God and excuse people from their obligations towards family, obligations that God has laid down in his word; "Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition" (Matthew 15:6).

We all have our traditions. We have ways of reading the Word of God which have been handed down to us, ways of reading which we have learnt or absorbed from others. This is not a bad thing, it is inevitable. Indeed, those who treasure Scripture most will be those whose traditions are most highly developed – they are our "theology", our way of reading the Bible. We do not read the Bible alone; we read it from within the community that has read it down the centuries and is reading it with us today. We read and hear it with the eyes and ears of our community of faith – how many will tell you that "the eye of a needle" was a very small gate in the walls of Jerusalem?

This is both a blessing and a danger. It is a blessing inasmuch as we learn from and with those who have gone before us. We are the heirs of their collective wisdom, and for this we give thanks to God. But it is a danger inasmuch as it is all too easy to blunt the edge of the Word of God through the myriad of explanations and qualifications that are passed down to us. The voice of God may become muffled, sometimes even silenced, by the overlay of our traditions.

We need to seek continually to hear the word of God afresh. We need to be like the Bereans who listened to the preaching of Paul; to value those who have helped us to understand the Word of God, but also to be always searching and studying the Scriptures to check that what they have taught us is faithful to the word – that it acts as a hearing aid rather than ear protectors.

Sadly, the re-examination of our traditions can often be viewed as threatening by those who cherish them most. To question how our party has interpreted the Word of God on a particular matter may be seen by the party faithful as the questioning of God himself. It is desperately sad when such party-spirit prevents people from allowing God to speak for himself – he must always speak through his self-appointed spokesmen.

The need to hear afresh what God is saying is never more necessary than when we come to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus says difficult things which continually challenge our settled lives. He will not allow us to become comfortable in our traditions; he demands that we examine the character of our hearts and the way we act towards and speak with one another. He calls us to be a pilgrim people, a transformed, transforming and transformative community. We need always to listen afresh to the words of Jesus and seek the help of his Spirit to hear his voice and go on following him.

Open my ears, Lord, to hear what you are saying to me from your Word. Let me feed on the crumbs that fall from the master’s table and dare even to sit at the table and feast with you. Keep me from a critical spirit that easily dismisses the views of others. Help me rather to continually re-examine my own heart that it may be cleansed by your Spirit and that it may be the source of words and actions that reflect the beauty and grace of your own life within me. Keep me following you closely in the fellowship of your disciples.

Jan 23 2019 - Genesis 27:41-28:22 – Jacob's ladder

Esau is so angry with his brother Jacob for having cheated him out of his blessing that he is intent on killing him. Learning of this, Rebekah concocts a story to again deceive her husband, and that Jacob may be sent away to her family in Haran. Isaac sends his younger son away with the promise God made to Abraham ringing in his ears, "May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now reside as a foreigner, the land God gave to Abraham." (Genesis 28:3-4).

As night fell on his first day of travel, Jacob lay down to sleep under the open sky. Remember that, unlike his brother Esau, Jacob liked to stay at home. He liked the company of his mother and a tent to sleep in. Now he was alone, out in the open and in danger of attack from wild animals. It was only the greater fear of Esau that had driven him out into this place of unimaginable dangers.

That night, as Jacob slept fitfully with his head upon a stone, he had a dream in which he saw a ladder (or more likely, a flight of steps) reaching from earth to the heavens. On these steps he saw angels ascending and descending.

I think that the order of words is important here. He first saw angels ascending; angels had been with him in his travels though they had been invisible to him. He saw angels descending; angels would continue to be with him as he moved on. What he saw was a kind of angelic changing of the guard; a disclosure that fresh troops of angels accompanied his every step.

At the top of this staircase Jacob saw the Lord who told him, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (28:13-15). God himself declares that Jacob is heir to all the promises that he made to Abraham. God is determined to work out his purposes for the redemption of the world through this sinful and frightened man. Not only will angels go with Jacob, God himself will be with him and will keep him safe.

The promise of God to Jacob, "I am with you" is one often repeated through Scripture. We can easily miss its remarkable nature. God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden but their rebellion led to their expulsion not only from Paradise but from the face of God. Yet God is intent to bridge the gulf between himself and humankind – to establish a stairway between heaven and earth and to make his home again with humankind. He is intent upon bringing the blessing of his own presence to all the families of the earth. This is the purpose that has laid hold of Jacob and will run through all the pages of the Old Testament until it finds its fulfilment and focus in Christ – the one in whom God has come to be with us (see John 1:51).

God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thank you that you have not left us alone in the wilderness of this world; you have come to us in Christ and will make your dwelling with us in the new creation. Help us to know that you are with us in every step of the journey of this life and that you will not leave us until you have blessed us with all that you have promised to give us in Christ.

Peter Misselbrook