Volume of the Book
Testament Reading: Psalm 40:1-17
Testament Reading: Hebrews 10:5-7
is still Advent, the season of growing anticipation of the coming of
Christ and Christmas, so I look naturally to another biblical text which
treats of his coming, this time one from the Epistle to the Hebrews. We
find it in the midst of an argument to the effect that the Levitical
sacrifices never really did any good, so that it was no great loss for
Christ to come and abolish them, putting his own atoning death in their
place. The writer puts into the mouth of Christ, apparently just having
arrived on earth from the Empyrean realm, the words of Psalm 40. "When he
cometh into the world, he saith... a body hast thou prepared me... Then I
said, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do
thy will, O God."
To me this passage has
always rung with a sense of destiny and portentous meaning, announcing the
arrival of the Desire of Ages. I can think of no more powerful Advent
text. In what follows, you will hear the exegesis of free association, I
am afraid. Here are the images that crowd in upon me as I read the text.
"When he cometh into the
world, he saith, 'A body thou hast prepared for me. In the volume of the
book, it is written of me: I come to do thy will, O God.'" From the
perspective of the author, no doubt what is meant here is a reference to
Old Testament messianic prophecy. The early Christians, of course,
believed that the career of Jesus Christ was predicted in minute detail in
the Hebrew scriptures, provided one only knew how to read them, and that
required a thorough schooling in Christian doctrine. So if these were in
fact prophecies, it is no surprise that no one had thought so in
The writer means that the
epochal time had come, the moment when the heavenly figure of the
pre-existent Son of God had come down to earth through the medium of a
body of flesh like ours. He knew the requirements of the Messianic mission
and was ready to undertake them, fulfilling to the letter all that the Law
and the Prophets and the Psalms had written of the role he was now
assuming. The great work of salvation is about to begin as the words of
Hebrews 10:5 and 7 are spoken.
But let us set aside the
difficult question of whether Jesus Christ and his death were predicted
before the fact (if anything in the eternal synoptic view of God may
properly be said to be "before the fact", for all moments are alive to
Here is the analogy that
strikes me. It seems to me in Hebrews 10 it is as if some great literary
character were suddenly to materialize before us. Here is Hamlet or Lear,
Faust, Ebenezer Scrooge, Jane Eyre, Agamemnon. For some of us no better
model of heaven could be imagined!
Here is that beloved
character, of whom one has often wished that he or she might truly exist
and that one might meet him! It is this secret wish that makes such
entertainments as Hal Holbrook's "An Evening with Mark Twain" so popular.
Of course Twain was real, but the point is the same. Think of a historical
character you wish you could meet. Napoleon, Solomon, Lincoln, Joan of
Arc, Samuel Johnson. Imagine they have appeared again, in the flesh. And
they are just as you would expect from what you have read of them, though
wonderfully more. They have stepped into a body and carried with them what
you read of them in the volume of the book. What a joy, though sadly to be
known only in dreams.
But I am saying that in a
sense this fantasy sums up what happened with the coming of Jesus Christ.
Here is a cherished character from the pages of legend: the Jewish
Messiah, he whose advent generations have faithfully dreamed of. And now
their dreams have taken substance! Here he is! Emmanuel has come!
In fact isn't this pretty
much what it means to say that with the coming of Jesus onto the stage of
history, "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us?" Or as C.S. Lewis
once said, that "myth became fact"? A character of eschatological fiction,
of poetic myth, appeared as a man.
Yet the irony is that
history has long by-passed this harbinger of the end of history, this
Messiah. He returned to the pages of scripture, Now for us he is a
character in the gospels. And no one can tell where in their pages fact
ends and myth begins. So now the reverse has happened: fact has again
become myth! Flesh has again become word!
But as John has his
Jesus-character say, "I do not leave you as orphans." Instead of the
irrecoverable human Jesus, a man among men and women, we are bequeathed
what Tillich called the picture of Jesus Christ in the gospels, an icon
painted with words that fairly crackles with saving power for everyone who
gazes deeply enough into it! As Paul said, "And we all, with unveiled
face, reflecting the glory of the Lord [Jesus], are being changed into his
likeness, from glory unto glory!" (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Paul is saying that it is
altogether possible for this word that became flesh and then became word
again to return anew to flesh in us! Myth can become fact again in you!
And here is where a
pedantic detail regarding Hebrews and the way it quotes Psalm 40 becomes
relevant. If you paid close attention to both readings, you may have
noticed that there is a crucial difference. Hebrews is quoting not from
the Hebrew text of the Psalms, but rather from the Greek translation known
as the Septuagint. The Septuagint has the reading, "a body thou hast
prepared for me," and that is why the writer to the Hebrews thought the
passage was relevant to the incarnation of Christ. But the original Hebrew
has "ears thou hast opened for me." What did this mean? The original point
is that God scarcely cares about bloody offerings. Rather he wants a
worshipper with attentive ears, one who marks and heeds the requirements
of scripture. What comes out in Hebrews as "In the volume of the book it
is written about me," originally meant, "In the scroll of the Law, it is
written for me to observe A, B, and C."
Jesus has long ago
stepped back into the pages of biblical saga, from whence he briefly
emerged, but he reemerges again whenever you and I approach the volume of
his book, the gospels, with open ears to hear his word of God and do it.
When you and I will turn the other cheek, seek reconciliation rather than
revenge, when we will root out sin in the heart where it originates, when
we will love our enemy and ask what is the most God requires of us, not
the least, then people will see again his word made flesh, but not until
then. In this Advent season, heed his word and so let him come forth!
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