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In the Volume of the Book


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 40:1-17

New Testament Reading: Hebrews 10:5-7

It 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 pre-Christian times.

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 him).

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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