11am Holy Communion 18th April 2021
Fulfilling the Prophets and Psalms
One of my more inspired projects for my Junior Church group was to ask them to imagine themselves as various witnesses to the Crucifixion and Resurrection and write short reports on what happened and their feelings about it. So, Mary Magdalene might what’s app her mum back in Galilee; Pontius Pilate might send a telex to the Middle East desk back in Rome; the centurion, a memo to HQ in Caesarea. Or it could be Joseph of Arimathea’s diary entry; a postcard to Alexander and Rufus from Simon of Cyrene; and so on. The point being, of course, that the resurrection was experienced differently by different people and meant and continues to mean, different things for all of us.
The gospel writers obviously see it from the point of view of belief; they are a little ambiguous about exactly what had happened, although insistent, for example on physical facts such as an empty tomb, but they all think, as we do, that it was a very significant, the most important event after creation itself. Their accounts, however, do not ignore the possibility of scepticism, nor do they suggest uniformity of experience and meaning. I want to explore a little one aspect which Luke emphasises both in our Gospel and (assuming he wrote it) Peter’s speech in Acts 4. This is the way in which the Crucifixion and Resurrection fulfil the scriptures – that “Everything written in the prophets and psalms was bound to be fulfilled”.
Superficially, this has always puzzled me; I have not read the whole of the Old Testament, but I don’t think there is any plausible, literal, prediction of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is however quite understandable that the Gospel writers and Jesus and Peter themselves should try to put the events of Holy Week and Easter into a scriptural context, if only to correct the misconceptions that many, perhaps most, people had about Jesus.
Throughout the Gospels the question has been, “Who is Jesus” and “Is he the Messiah?” Most pressingly, only a week earlier, the crowds had welcomed Jesus as the Son of David, and, despite his somewhat less than glorious mount, had seen him they hoped, as the triumphant conqueror who would throw out the Romans. It was the disappointment of those, political expectations that turned that crowd against Jesus outside Pilate’s place five days later. An explanation was needed to show how those expectations were mistaken and how, properly interpreted, Jesus was indeed the Messiah and the Crucifixion and Resurrection, despite all appearances, were his triumph, and one way beyond the aspirations of a small nation in a minor province.
As I’m sure you know, “Messiah” means anointed and Christ means the same; anointing in the Old Testament is mostly reserved for Kings and a few prophets. It’s a mark that they are designated by God as his special agents on earth. The most notable anointing is that of David, the king who was seen as having restored (or founded) Israel’s golden age. The longing for the return of David, or his “son” to throw out the Romans and restore Israel’s glory, was a 1st century reading of the stories of David and of the Psalms that speak of his reign. It is not at all obvious (and pretty implausible) that the contemporaries of the prophets or psalmist would have read this talk of a messiah and a golden age as referring to military victory over Israel’s future occupying enemies. That was perhaps the first misconception that the Gospel writers and Peter needed to clear up.
It was not, however, all wrong to see Jesus as fulfilling these prophecies, and indeed as the culmination of the overarching story of the Old Testament. The anointed king is in several passages seen as bringing in an other-worldly era. The classic instance of this is Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the Holy Mountain, which we hear in the Carol Service. Similar prophetic visions emphasise the harmony of human society with the divine will. The Messiah persuades the people to be righteous- that is to walk in the ways of God; respecting the poor and the stranger and dealing fairly. It is a vision close to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven.
In this role as the bringer of a sort of utopia, although I think an attainable one, the Messiah, Christ, is acting as God’s agent in human and worldly affairs. His agent’s involvement in human affairs is sometimes seen, in the prophets and psalms as one as experiencing suffering and the Gospel narratives of the Passion clearly echo these “Suffering Servant” passages They also point to a more fundamental theme of the writings.
Put simplistically, the overall story of the Old Testament is the attempts of God’s people to reverse the Fall; the Promised Land and the return from Exile are visions of a restoration of the world as it should be, and as it was when first created. The ancient Israelites would not, I think, have seen the story of Creation and the Fall of man as literally true (and the stories were not, as it is easy to suppose, the first things written in Old Testament) They, as we, saw this myth as explaining why God’s creation is not as perfect as it might be- that is why there is pain and suffering in the world. They would have seen the Promised Land as a place, or a life, where the harmony of existence was achieved by the alignment of men’s will with that of God. It was that same vision of righteousness which inspired the prophets of the Exile; that failure to align had caused the disaster leading to the Exile and restoring or establishing it would secure the Return.
All this necessarily recognised the fragility of human nature and our propensity for evil. The Promised Land and the restoration of Eden recognised this fallibility, and so it is that the Christian new creation, the , comes about through extreme suffering. We, the inhabitants of this new Creation are not freed from suffering, but can believe that through it or despite it, a perfect existence is attainable, for ourselves and all our fellow creatures.
That was perhaps what Jesus explained on the way to Emmaus and in the Upper Room. That was how he fulfilled the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. I don’t suggest this is the only way of looking at and experiencing the Crucifixion and resurrection, but it is one which I believe continues to inspire and perhaps challenge us too. Amen.