Today’s sermon is a story of God’s faithfulness to us across space and time through the words of scripture. To be honest with you, I thought a lot about throwing this sermon in the trash.
It didn’t seem like enough.
But my role is to open up ways God is speaking to our community and I kept being drawn back to really grounding ourselves in scripture and witnessing to how scripture can sustain us. The sermon began weeks ago out of questioning how we are equipped as people of faith. Watching people of this community respond this week to the injustice in our nation convicted me even further that my role is not to tell you what to do, but to continue to help equip you to fulfill your calling. This is just one small way I’m hoping to do so.
Prayer: Give us the encouragement or challenge we need to hear today, keeping us open for how your Spirit is speaking to us. Amen.
History: The bible we keep in our pews today is a miracle.
It’s quite the collection, law, stories, poetry, parables, gathered together over thousands of years. So let’s fast forward through a mini history lesson of how the bible came to be. It was spoken first, not written, brought alive by dramatic storytelling and incredible powers of memorizations. Then it was recited by priests in the most sacred of places. Want to know why there’s so much repetition in the bible? Try only listening to it and then trying to remember what has been said.
And then, writing. Words written carefully on precious paper or animal skins. Poetry and short syntax first, prose narrative didn’t emerge until 850-800 BCE. Passed along carefully, repeated from generation to generation. There was the great and holy tradition of scribes who hand wrote and copied texts as error free as they possibly could. Even then, this was not a solitary activity. The Hebrew word for “read” involves the process of reading out loud.
And then printing. Suddenly it became an almost feasible idea that there could be a copy for everyone. William Tyndale translated scripture into English and gave us the first pocket bibles and phrases like, “Let there be light” and “My brother’s keeper.” The two columns and thin paper we know so well in bibles today emerged.
The bible continued to be translated from ancient versions of languages no longer spoken. Translated again. And again. Translated by committees, like the King James bible, or translated by individuals like William Tyndale. It was translated into languages people spoke, opening scripture from the select few to all people. The amount of bibles increased along with the literacy rate.
Mass printing seems like nothing when you think of all versions of the bible we have in this room right now. Thank you, biblegateway.com for adding the NRSV translation finally, along with the 52 other translations I could pull up now in two clicks.
The story of the bible is the story of technology. And that’s certainly a celebration of human innovation, but I also believe it must be God at work.
We keep passing the story along. The Jesus Storybook Bible has sold over 2 million copies. The Action Bible, an illustrated comic book version and my personal favorite, has a five star rating on Amazon. For those who were wondering, the HarperCollins Study Bible only has four and a half stars. So choose wisely.
The bible is the center of our Reformed, capital R, worship. What we’re gathering here this morning for is a service of the Word, capital W. My preaching isn’t just a ted talk, and frankly probably isn’t as good as a ted talk, but it is a proclamation of what we find in scripture interpreted for our community here today. And because it’s a living Word we have freedom to wrestle with what’s going on in the world today alongside the text in the bible. No matter how you put it, it’s all about the Word.
What this means is you can’t be a Christian without the bible. Maybe you’ve heard this before and tried to do something about it. Reading the bible more is right up there with the New Year’s resolutions like join a gym and save more money. That moral obligation you know you should be doing but just can’t quite get yourself motivated to do. This might be in part because there’s this thought that if we can just study the bible enough we can figure it out. If I can learn just a little more about the history, or study ancient Hebrew, or read the latest book, then the bible will be illuminated and I can be just a little more holy. And maybe I can finally figure out what is going on in Leviticus.
The trouble is, we can’t master the bible.
It is not a text you can figure out, no matter how many PhD’s you have. That’s because the bible is about creating a relationship between us and God. I don’t mean this in a naive Jesus is my best friend kind of way, but that scripture is about covenant and promise. And that means anyone can read the bible and find a meaningful interpretation, because it’s all about how God speaks to us and comes to us, not how much we’ve studied.
Deuteronomy: Look no further than Deuteronomy. What we read today is but a small taste of the mercy and grace God shows to God’s people. There’s an important twist in Deuteronomy 30:6 that’s easy to miss, especially if you’re like me and skim over all of the circumcision talk. But 30:6 says, the LORD you God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all you soul, in order that you may live.
Who is in charge of the action here? I’ll give you a hint–it’s not us. Compare this to Deuteronomy 10:12 which says, “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today for your own well-being.” A pretty tall order, which goes on to say a few verses later, “Circumcise your heart and do not be stubborn any longer.”
What happened between Deuteronomy 10 and 30? It’s a pretty big shift from, follow all the rules and stop being so stubborn, to God taking care of hearts and promising a commandment that is “not too hard for you.” It’s the difference between I can do this on my own and I need you, God, to get through this.
We know from scripture that the Israelites went through great hardship and tragedy. They were exiled from their homeland. Deuteronomy 30:14 might be speaking to this nomadic experience and the importance of having belief that will travel with you. Hear these words in the context of being isolated and disoriented from what you know, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Which to me is what scripture and claiming the bible is all about. It’s not about getting it right and following every commandment to the letter. The function of scripture had to adapt from a rule book–we all know it’s more than that–to a way to hear God. Knowing scripture is about holding God’s voice close. It’s about being equipped for a journey. It’s a message that translates across generations and speaks light into situations of great darkness. It’s about the transition between trying to do everything right and then hitting moments where we know just how desperately we need God in our lives.
Today: America may have hit one of those points this week. I don’t have to tell you about grief and outrage, about the struggle to find the right words. I don’t have to tell about how righteously angry we need to be that black and brown bodies are targeted for violence. I don’t have to tell you about lamenting over the death of police officers. You all know this and are voicing and struggling through your concerns. We are here together as a community to talk and pray together through this and I welcome you back at 6:30 to meet again.
Through all of this God is speaking to us. God speaks to us through the Word, and I hope our brief history lesson helped show that the Word is not limited to the exact printed words of our bible’s pages. I’m talking about the word that is not in heaven or beyond the sea, but the Word that is very near to us. I am here to tell you to cling to that.
The word will be carried in our voices.
Prophets echo through the shouts of protesters, asking for justice. Scripture comes alive through the sounds of lament. It is the quiet word from God of comfort, comfort, comfort ye my people.
This is why the bible cannot be locked up, only known to the elite. This is why it must be kept very near to us, so words of justice pour out of us almost without even thinking.
We have to make the word part of who we are. The history of how the bible, the Word of God, is speaking to the world is still unfolding in our midst today.
There is much more than what I will read you now, but hear what the Word of God has to say into my life this week.
From Job chapter 30, “Surely one does not turn against the needy, when in disaster they cry for help. Did I not weep for those whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came. My inward parts are in turmoil and are never still.”
From James 2, “Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” – if you don’t give them the necessities of life?”
Or from Luke chapter 6, “If you love those who love you, what credit it that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”
From Matthew, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for their is the kingdom of heaven.”
Hear what the Spirit is telling God’s people.
Turning to the word is a discipline of humility and putting ourselves in a position of dependence on God. The heart of what I am trying to say is this. Turn toward scripture, listen for the word, because in doing so God will come to you. Be reminded that the Word became flesh through Jesus Christ and we must keep looking toward him for answers and hope in our broken world. We can trust in the sturdiness of this message that has evolved and been proclaimed in so many different communities and times.
We have love to show to the world.
We have justice to proclaim.
Be equipped and sent forth by the Word, keeping God very near to you.