(note OT = Old Testament, NT = New Testament)
I remember when, as I child, there were few things I would get into more trouble for than going behind the back of one parent to try and coax the forbidden whichever from the other.
It’s a trick most children learn fast – playing one parent off against the other. They get a ‘no’ from one parent, so they turn to the other in the hope of a more favourable answer, or else, knowing they are in trouble, throwing in a carefully weighed, ‘but Mum said …’. Distraction, diversion, divide and rule and the art of knowing exactly which parent to own up to for what are stock in trade for most children. It’s only ever really effective if the parents in question are not seeing eye to eye.
But we can carry a similar attitude into our relationship with our heavenly father. If we are not careful we can start to treat the persons of the Trinity as divided parents, rather than a united godhead. Especially when we identify God the Father as the God of the Law, and of Commandment and Righteousness. This God we think of as the God of the OT (who threatens Ahab with a bloody end), district from the God we see in the new. There we see our Saviour God, Jesus (who forgives and understand the weeping sinner). Then our religion begins to resemble the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. We hide behind Jesus, asking him to protect us from God’s righteous wrath, and God the Father, somehow, takes out his anger instead on our mother Jesus.
It is not a pretty picture, but it is the image that starts to form when we cannot unite our scriptures behind a united and coherent Trinity.
If our God is a united God, if the doctrine of the Trinity means what it says, then our split idea of scripture and godhead must be nonsense. How can it be that our God is fighting within himself to apportion blame? How can it be that God sets up the Law as a path to righteousness, and then turns round and tells us that that won’t do anymore? How can it be that these two stories – of judgement and forgiveness – can be about the same god?
But perhaps the two testaments are not so opposed, if we read them against each other. After all, we can read in the OT of Ruth’s example to us as a person of patience and faith, or, in the book of Psalms, of the god who puts our sin from us, as far as the east is from the west. We can hear the word of the Lord in Ezekiel, in which God yearns for us to turn to him and promises a new heart, promising to put his spirit within us; read in Isaiah of the god who would comfort us as a mother comforts her child and tell me this is not Jesus’ Father. Not so much hidden as overlooked, the grace of the NT is woven through the OT.
Then, if we look at Matthews gospel, Jesus tells us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees we will not make it into heaven, that we must be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. Matthew tells us again and again of Jesus’ words describing the woe and exclusion of them who fail the standards of God’s kingdom. In the Book of Revelation we see there the fate of those who set themselves apart from the will of God, or in Paul’s letters, he writes at length of the judgement of God upon the unrighteous. This is the same God who demands holiness from his people in the Old Testament and who teaches us that what is right is not about what seems comfortable, or pragmatic, or sensible, or natural, or about that which ‘does nobody any harm,’ but it is about God’s law and her righteousness and Word. Here, also overlooked in the NT, we find the radiant, uncompromising holiness of God, found in the words and revelation of Jesus Christ.
“The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old Testament is revealed in the New.” (Augustine)
Not two warring parents, then, but one God, united in passionate righteousness and ready to do whatever it takes to bridge the gap between his holiness and our folly.
In both Old Testament & New Testament, of course, there are difficult passages which challenge us and trouble us. But did we really think it would be easy to understand the God who answers us out of the whirlwind, who determined the measurements of creation, who is the source of all existence? Do we expect Holy Writ to be found and defined within the confinement of a human mind?
Yet both the Old & New Testament consistently set out for us a God whose holiness we cannot look on and live: A god who commands our obedience and who calls us to righteousness, but whose standards we cannot possibly reach. This god loves us with a love stronger than death and feels our infidelity as painfully as a lover watching her beloved’s betrayal. This god sought us out, willing to pay any price necessary, even his son, his only son, Jesus, whom he loves, to seek us out in our sin bring us back into his presence.
Here in our readings today we find two sides of the same coin: the holiness and the love of God; God’s outrage at corruption and murder, and his willingness to have mercy on the one who returns to him.
The reason the law of the Old Testament gave way to grace, was not because it is bad, or not thought through, not because God has changed, nor even because Jesus had outwitted God the Father, but because the Law was not enough. Even if we keep the law to the last jot and tittle, we can still miss the point, will still miss the point. For there is no legislation for the heart. Instead, the law of the OT shows us what a righteous life looks like, so that we could recognise the Righteous One when he came. The Law shows us the holiness of God, so that we can see how broken we are.
Jesus does not hide us from God, he draws us near to him. Nor is Jesus blind to our sin, but offers to carry its weight for us, so that we can be free to try again.
For of course, what worth is our forgiveness, if God does not really care what we do? If it is of no great moment what choices we take, what thoughts and feelings we harbour, why would God need to pay such a terrible price for our restoration? The reason the forgiven sinner weeps, the reason her love is so great, is because her debt was great and its cancellation costly, not to her, but to our Lord. And the cost is great to our Lord, not because he opposes Our Father, but because he was sent to bridge the gap between us in his own body. The so-called penitent who sits in their sin, thinking that Jesus, like a doting mother protects her children from a strict father, merely hides their continuing sin from a wrathful God, -> has not repented of their sins, only owned up to them. Our repentance is not a matter of playing one god off against another, but of asking our mother to lead us by the hand as we learn to walk in our Father’s footsteps, desiring earnestly to become more like both of them as we grow into the full stature of Christ.
Picture via sadeewhip.com