Sermon: Frank Moritz-Jauk
Dealing with the Old Testament Joel 2,23-3,5
Dear Church, I have chosen the title „Dealing with the Old Testament“ for the title of today’s sermon. And I would like to try to trace some lines that became visible to me at the autumn study day last weekend in St. Pölten. Therefore I divide this sermon into a first part, dealing with two basic questions of the title of the autumn study day, and a second part, with two further major topics in dealing with the Old Testament. We use as our basis the text from the book Joel heard today. This brings me today, for once, to four instead of the usual three topics, and I hope that everyone will nevertheless be able to follow them well.
The title of the last autumn study day was: „Is the Old Testament bloodthirsty and outdated?
Is the Old Testament bloodthirsty? Bloodthirsty means brutal or cruel or merciless. The answer to this question by Anette Schellenberg, who teaches as a professor at the University of Vienna, I found very refreshing. She said: „Yes, but so are other texts from this period.“
I don’t hear that as an apology, but simply as a description of the facts. I will not deny that we find extremely brutal stories in the Old Testament. I don’t want to recall the very worst stories now, because otherwise they will probably become stuck in our thoughts, but I want to pick out two stories as examples: The Story of Bathsheba and David and The Story of the Israelites taking land. The story of Bathsheba and David leads to David having Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, executed. After their adultery can no longer be covered up, he sends a letter to his supreme commander, ordering his troops to retreat behind Uriah, eﬀectively ordering his death. An ugly contract murder. And the land seizure by the Israelites also makes us shake our heads – from today’s perspective. Genocide, we would call it today, or ethnic cleansing, if the Israelites would be ordered to execute this ban (order). Terribly cruel stories.
What I consider good for Anette Schellenberg’s „Yes, but“ argument is that even modern historiography is full of blood and misery. The World War battles, with hundreds of thousands of dead, the genocide of the Jews or in Rwanda, the history of peoples and individual cruelties, like the attempted assassination in Halle, (as individual acts).
It is precisely when we recall the cruelties of our history and our present times, that we notice that the texts in the Old Testament do not diﬀer from the reality we experience today.
And there are by no means only cruel texts or descriptions to be found in the Old Testament. Let’s take just one example from this wealth of info: from the Psalms. Not all Psalms, but what can be found here, works through all times and into our present time, in God’s experience, salvation and praise. Psalm 23 works far beyond the boundaries of the Church.
This brings me to the second part of the title: Is the Old Testament outdated?
Without question, there are texts in the Old Testament that have already been in existence for several years. And without question the ideas of the world have changed through the course of history. Ideas of legality have changed, science has gathered new insights, the modern person’s life and experience consists of mobile phone, computer, Internet and fiber optic cables and is not necessarily comparable to a shepherd’s life of sheep and goats. No question about it.
But does this mean the questions negotiated in the Old Testament are outdated?
I say, no. Because -for example in Genesis, the first book of Moses, the questions of human existence, of living together, of the origin of the universe and our participation therein, these are dealt with here.
The biblical creation-reports correspond to the state of knowledge of that time and the observations reflect the possibilities of that time. But the basic statement of the creation-reports contains beside the „how“ also a „who“. Who is responsible for this world, its origin and form? Was it man who created the earth or does man find the earth and ponder its origin? What is the relationship between God and man like? Is there any connection at all here?
These are all questions which are addressed in the Old Testament and which still concern us as humans today. And that regardless of their outcome. Sooner or later every human being asks these questions, and every human being finds an answer to this question.
So I don’t think the Old Testament is obsolete at all. From our distance in time that we now have, we just have to do more translation work. We actually know this from texts in the New Testament. There, too, Jesus tells parables that are taken from people’s everyday life. Today, of course, we would like Jesus to tell parables from our reality. One man had a huge computer server with tens of thousands of RAM. One day he learned that the access to all his precious collected data was paralyzed by a spam attack via the Internet. What should he do? And so on.
The Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments, cannot oﬀer us this reference to the present. That is why we have to do constant translation (or reference) work, which is sometimes exhausting and laborious.
But when we do, we gain access to the existential questions of life; about things and topics that fundamentally concern our lives. What can I do if I have wronged someone and this burdens me but this person refuses to forgive me? What can I do if I feel so miserable that I would like to bury myself? What can I do against envy and the resulting dissatisfaction that poisons my life? Are these questions outdated?
Now I come to the announced part two and the addressed topics on the basis of the text from the book of Joel heard today.
My first topic is the question: To whom does the text speak?
Those who have listened attentively will be able to answer this question: „And you will see that I am in the middle of Israel and that I, the Lord, am your God and no one else. And my people will never be put to shame again“. So it is unmistakable, the God of Israel is speaking to his people here. But immediately at this point comes a text which some of us may be quite familiar with: „And after this I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall have dreams, and your young men shall see visions. These words Peter uses in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the strange behavior of the people who have just received the Holy Spirit and have begun to speak in diﬀerent languages. It goes without saying: a text directly connected with the Israelites is used here by Peter, to explain his own situation. As if the prophet Joel, who around the 4th century before Christ, had made a statement that would only occur half a millennium later. This can of course be theoretical, but it is quite unlikely.
The book Joel is not long. It has only four chapters and the content is told very quickly. The people are haunted by a large, voracious, all-destroying army. An army as it can still be found today – a swarm of locusts. And this army, then as now, is to bring about a trace of devastation and is to move the listeners to repentance. Literally it says: „But even now, says the Lord, return to me with all his heart, with fasting, with weeping, with lamentation! Tear up your hearts and not your clothes and turn to the Lord your God“. A beautiful picture: Tear your hearts and not your clothes. And our text heard today also speaks of the blessing that comes when this plague has been overcome and change succeeded. It would be extremely strange if the consolation were to consist in the Holy Spirit being poured out on a number of people in Jerusalem 500 years later. What I would like to say with this is that we are and become aware of the direction in which an interpretation, that is to say a meaning, is meant here. The early Christians interpret experiences with promises from the Old Testament. For them the maltreated Jesus is on the cross, the suﬀering servant of God as Isaiah describes him. But I do not believe that Isaiah or Joel had a vision that showed them events as far away as the gift of the Holy Spirit or, with Isaiah, the resurrected Christ.
This brings me to the last part or topic that I would also like to tie to the Book of Joel and that has actually already been shown. Whoever reads or hears the Old Testament will discover where our roots are. Where everything comes from and has its origin. Many texts of the New Testament have their origin in the Old Testament. Some of them are even literal quotations, as has already been shown in the context of Joel and Acts. But this interweaving and interpenetration, like the threads of a dress, is often found. And not only within the Old Testament, but we find this weaving in our contemporary songs and liturgies.
I have quoted the passage „Tear up your hearts and not your clothes“. Immediately afterwards the reason for the conversion is mentioned. Again literally: „For he is gracious, merciful, patient, and of great goodness, and soon this punishment repents of him“. We also find this formulation in Psalm 86, verse 15: „But you, Lord God, are merciful and gracious, patient and of great goodness and faithfulness. Or in Psalm 103, verse 8: „The God is merciful and gracious, patient and of great goodness. And Psalm 103 is not only a psalm that we find in our hymn book, but it is also part of our liturgy of the Lord’s Supper 774, which we will pray today. From this we can see that important statements in the Bible form a polyphonic choir, whose singers also appear in the Old Testament in so many diﬀerent ways.
That sermon was diﬃcult today, and so I will try to conclude with a brief summary of my passionate plea for the handling and meaning of the Old Testament:
The Old Testament is in places bloodthirsty. Not everything is bloodthirsty. But where it is bloodthirsty, it reminds us, for example, of the abysses (darkness) of our humanity.
The Old Testament is not outdated, for here essential questions of human existence and the corresponding attempts at explanation are negotiated.
In my opinion the Old Testament deserves a respectful treatment and one should at least be aware of the Christological interpretations therein.
In the Old Testament and in its penetration into the New Testament and into our songs and liturgies it becomes clear how many treasures, promises and words of power are present here. May all that has been said encourage you and me, and let the Old Testament provide you a new gift. Amen