The Sunday Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 22, 2018
What is the Bible Good For?
Deep in the shadows of the past, Far out from settled lands.
Some nomads traveled with their God, Across the desert sands.
The dawn of hope for humankind Was glimpsed by them alone:
A promise calling them ahead, a future yet unknown.
While others bowed to changeless gods, they met a mystery.
God with an uncompleted name, “I am what I will be.”
And by their tents, around their fires, In story, song, and law
They praised, remembered, handed on A past that promised more.
From Abraham to Nazareth, The promise changed, and grew,
While some, remembering the past, Recorded what they knew,
And some, in letters or laments, In prophecy and praise.
Recovered, held, and re-expressed New hope for changing days.
For all the writings that survived, For leaders, long ago,
Who sifted, chose, and then preserved the Bible that we know,
Give thanks, and find its promise yet: Our comfort strength and call,
The working model of our faith, Alive with hope for all.
Pray with me …
The poem you just heard will be sung, by us, in just a few moments. It is hymn number three hundred and thirty in our hymnal, this morning’s sermon hymn. We’ve sung it before, it will be familiar. It ends with what’s supposed to be an assurance for us, that the “bible” is Our comfort, strength and call, The working model of our faith, alive with hope for all.
And yet, always, it seems to me, questions like yours from May and June – How do we apply the stories of the Bible to our daily lives? Which stories in the Bible are real? What is the Book of Revelation about? How do we understand Paul‘s writings, the Psalms, the creation story, miracles, or end times? – questions that I ask, too, reminding us that we don’t’ really know much about the Bible. I know we don’t really like to acknowledge that. I’ll bet a few of you are taking issue with that assessment already. But not wanting to admit this fact makes it even harder to get “re-introduced” to the Bible when we try.
I remember early in my Seminary classes, it must have been a Scripture I class, reading that most church members live their lives off a second-grade Sunday school education. Now that was about twenty years ago, but I’ll bet it’s not much different not. More recent surveys have noted that the more church people hear of the Bible in church, the less they feel they know about it! Does that sound like any of you? Either of those descriptions? The latter is most likely my fault.
Ordained minister and Harvard professor, Peter Gomes suggests that it was actually “the tremendous explosion in scholarship about the Bible itself,” intended to make more sense of it, “that made it harder for the average person to read” it with any degree of self-confidence (The Good Book 7). Historical, geographical, and archeological sciences; Textual, Rhetorical and Source Criticism; Folk theology, Feminist theology, theologies of the Poor; literal, metaphorical, and allegorical interpretations; homiletical, pastoral, and exegetical perspectives. For more than a hundred years our unprecedented attention to the complexity of biblical scholarship has frustrated the average reader.
Because the truth is, all of us tend to believe that complexity of any kind is hazardous in our lives and we avoid it. That’s profoundly unfortunate in the case of reading the Bible, because we are then unprepared to cope with complexity when it confronts us. And it’s been confronting us, at least this month, in our faith life: Come, study with us! See what we already have discovered and then look deeper to discover more, for faith is also an intellectual adventure for the Truth” (Fosdick). I’ve been pushing you, pushing us, to challenge our doctrines and discern our discoveries more “complexly” – death and eternal life; evil and suffering; prayer, justification, and Sabbath. And this morning, the Bible.
How many of you have a favorite passage, or two, from the Bible? Almost all of us. How many of you know the “larger context” of that passage? I know I’m doing that “frustrating the average reader” thing with that question. But I suggest we ought to at least know a little of that if we’re to call it a favorite passage and use it in our lives and for others. So, who wrote your passage? Who spoke it? Who was it written or spoken to? Why was it shared? Rhetorical questions, those, for you to answer for yourselves or to find out later. And later you can go as far as you want in answering that question: Isaiah in the 8th century to the Kingdom of Judah before their exile to get them to change their ways; or, more simply, Jesus to his disciples because they were scared. But answer it.
You see most of us, most Christians, piece together a handful of scripture passages we “like” because they, more often than not, support our own ideologies and prejudices. We then declare them, indirectly or quite directly, to be God’s word straight from the Bible. The Good Book then very quickly becomes a “rule book.”
“You want to know how you’re supposed to treat your parents?” Exodus 20
“You want to know what you’re supposed to eat?” Levitcus 11
“You want to know who you’re supposed to love? Mark 12
“You want to know who God hates?” 1 Cornithians 5
As helpful as these passages might be if we treated them as a living Word, we don’t. We treat them as lifeless, cold, judgmental words, and we wind up using them to vilify opponents, demonize those who don’t agree with us, and attack all those we think are, then, “opposed to God.”
So, here’s the very first thing we must know about our Bible: It is NOT a rule book. And as complex as it can be – written over a period of about fifteen hundred years, between fourteen hundred BCE and one hundred CE; in many different literary forms, from historical to prophetic, from wisdom to personal letters, from revelation to Gospel; whose authors include rural farmers, sophisticated urbanites, poets, historians, storytellers, prophets, exiles, dreamers, and slaves – as complex as it can be, from cover to cover our Good Book relates a single tale: The tale of one “God,” its main subject, and of one Humanity, its second subject.
These tales are told through the eyes of the ancient Israelites and first century Jews, so the Bible is relative – “related to” them and their experience of their God and themselves.
These tales are told in the lands in which these people lived – ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and first century Palestine, so the Bible is culturally conditioned – produced by a nomadic people in search of a land to call their own who then “found” that land. And as they traveled, and as they settled, they wrote about their God and about themselves. That’s what the Bible is good for, first and foremost. It reveals God. It is a special revelation of God. And it reveals us. And only after we have a grasp on those two revelations, it tells us where we should go and what, if we are to be saved, we are to do.
So, whenever you pick up the Bible, be prepared to “meet God,” first. Ask yourself as you read, a verse or a passage or a chapter, “who, what, how” is God in this reading? That’s easier in the Gospels, or in the creation story, or in the prophetic warnings, but “God” is always present.
After you’ve “revealed” God, ask yourself, “who, where, how” am I, or are we, in this reading? Again, that’s more easily done with some passages than others, but we’re always “in there,” too.
Only after you’ve found God and found humanity, found yourself or others, only then ask yourself, what is this passage asking me “to do?” That’s the ethic, the “so what,” the rule we think we want to know so desperately. But it can only be arrived at after we’ve better understood the divinity and humanity, God and ourselves. If we start with the ethic, the rule, we inevitably make God in our own image. But when we start with theology, we allow God to be God, mystery that God is (I will be who I will be).
One final note: As you read, as you search, and as you begin “theologically” in the Bible, you will read about and discover a God of every manner. Including a violent God. Not simply God depicted in violent ways, but a violent God. From Genesis to Revelation, banishment from the Garden to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, God is depicted as vengeful and violent between the covers of this Book of many books. I’ve never found much comfort in trying to explain away what is pretty clearly depicted. Floods, deaths, punishments, and destruction, it’s all there.
Remember: The Bible is relative and culturally-conditioned, related to a particular people in a particular time in a particular culture. These people wrote perceptively of the human plight and human emotions in light of a reality beyond both, beyond but never separate from humanity. These people wrote of this through prayers and epic narratives that still speak to us where we are today thousands of years later. But they wrote in their own time and place, with a theology and an anthropology (and understanding of God and humanity) that was conditioned by their world and their understanding, or lack of understanding, of why violent events happened, natural or human. You will, we do, find a violent God described in our Holy Scripture.
When you do, do some work – context and history. And when you’ve done that and still can’t make sense of what a particular passage may be trying to say about God, when no matter how hard you try, the “God” revealed to you remains violent and vicious, consider a revelation that’s even more special for us than the Bible itself. Consider God revealed to us through the Gospel narratives of Jesus of Nazareth.
As Christians, Jesus is what can be seen, and heard, and experienced of God embodied in human life. If Jesus wouldn’t have banished Adam and Eve to hard labor for the rest of their lives, we can be reasonably sure that the God we worship wouldn’t either. Just maybe there’s some deeper meaning to the story of our “expulsion” from the garden. If Jesus wouldn’t have destroyed the earth with a flood, then maybe there’s something deeper to the Noah story, or the stories in Esther and Daniel. Maybe there’s more than a literal meaning to the Book of Revelation. If Jesus wouldn’t have excluded anyone from the Kingdom he established because of gender or race or sexuality or social status, then God doesn’t and maybe we shouldn’t either.
It’s not easy. I know that. And you do, too. Many of you have known it longer than me. And not everything reading or passage will fall so easily into the “theology-anthropology-ethic” way of interpreting I’ve offered. But keep reading, keep listening, keep revealing. It’s worth it. The Bible reveals for us a God of life, and a humanity striving to live into a Way of life that gives life to all.
What is the Bible good for? Life as intended … (and here’s our scripture reading for those who’ve been wondering):
(Life as intended …) “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1
And at the end: “The Grace of the Lord Jesus be with all of you.” Revelation 22:21
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 22, 2018