"A Light to Our Path"
Scripture - 2 Timothy 3:10-17
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, September 15, 2013
You have likely seen the bumper sticker that says: "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." I know it's wrong to hate, but I really hate that bumper sticker! In a mere ten words, it makes people of faith sound ignorant, intolerant and arrogant.
So what are Christians supposed to believe about the Bible? Different words have been used to describe a believer's approach to Scripture. Three prominent ones are: inerrant, inspired and authoritative.
People who believe the Bible is inerrant believe that the Bible contains no errors or contradictions and the words of Scripture come directly from God. Generally, people who hold this position believe that God spoke directly to a human who took dictation.
Others find that word too rigid and use the word inspired. Rather than imagining a scribe taking dictation from an audible voice, they might think a writer heard whispers in his heart believed to be emanating from God and this writing was later confirmed by the church when it decided which books were to be included in the Bible.
Those who use the terms inerrant or inspired may rely on this morning's passage from Second Timothy. The passage says "All Scripture is inspired by God."
Two quick comments. First, the reference to Scripture means the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament did not yet exist. Second, while the verse is translated "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching" that is not what the Greek says. If you followed along in the pew Bible, you may have noticed the footnote which says the wording is actually, "All Scripture inspired by God is also useful in teaching." Read that way, it could mean that some Scripture is inspired and some is not.
Many people who shy away from the words inerrant and inspired speak of the authority of the Bible. They do not believe that the Bible is simply one great book among others. They believe the Bible is unique in its claim on their lives. They acknowledge contradictions and verses that are clearly at odds with Christ-like teachings, but they believe the Bible contains within its pages, revealed truth about who God is and who we are called to become, even if the words were not literally spoken to human ears and transmitted onto paper.
The reformer, Martin Luther, believed the Bible was authoritative, but he did not believe it was without flaws. He wanted the books of Esther, James and Revelation removed from the Bible. Luther emphasized that Christ, not the Bible, was the Word of God.
John Calvin did not believe that authority existed in the words of the Bible, but rather in God's Spirit at work both in the Scriptures and the believers."1
In recent years, even the word authoritative has come under fire as sounding too inflexible. The word implies that God is the author of the Scriptures, and may suggest to some that we are overlooking the role played by human beings who are prone to error, time-bound and incapable of totally removing their own ideas from the process.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, "When people talk about the authority of the Bible, they tend to regard the Bible as a closed, settled formulation. (He finds) it more helpful to talk about the Bible as authorizing rather than authoritative. Authorizing recognizes that the Bible is dynamic - we are summoned, empowered, and emancipated - whereas authority tends to be static and closed."2
I'm not entirely sold on Brueggemann's word "authorizing," but he definitely points to something essential. The Bible is dynamic. It is not that God spoke words long ago, they were recorded and we are supposed to believe them. Rather, through words that were written long ago, God continues to speak a fresh and vital word today. God did not convey the entire message centuries ago and then retire to a far corner of the cosmos. God's Spirit is alive and continues to speak.
While we often think of the Bible as one book, you and I know it is not. It is a collection of 66 books written by a number of people over a period of more than 1,000 years and is amazingly diverse. It contains history, stories and songs; laws, letters and lamentations; prayers, proverbs, parables and poetry. The Bible contains verses that are timeless and verses that are time-bound. It shares marvelous teachings on truth and love, yet it also has stories of cruelty and vindictiveness. It has words that form the foundation of my life and verses to which I would love to take a pair of scissors. That would shock some Christians, but as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, "There are always more people who love the Bible than who actually know what is in it."3
It is important to keep in mind that people of faith do not believe in the Bible. We believe in the God to whom the Bible points. My desire to remove certain passages is not simply rooted in personal preference but rather what I have learned from Jesus. Jesus himself wanted us to discard some passages. One example, he called on us to ignore a verse that appears in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
I believe Jesus would have removed some other passages as well. For instance, Psalm 137:9, which says "Happiness is smashing your enemy's children upon the rocks."
According to the Book of Proverbs, it is appropriate to beat people who lack common sense. Proverbs 10:13 says, "On the lips of one who has understanding wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of one who lacks sense." Similarly, Proverbs 26:3 "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools."
Raise your hand if you have ever worked on a Sunday. I don't necessarily mean the work that is connected with a paying job, I mean dish washing, lawn mowing, house cleaning, any sort of work. You are obviously unfamiliar with Exodus 35:2 which says, "For six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death." Following worship, report to the front lawn!
I've heard people say that if you have a problem, you open the Bible to a random page and God's answer will be there. Let's see. God, my teenage daughter has developed an ugly attitude, calling me every obscene name she knows. What should I do? Exodus 21:17 - "Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death." Some of you have thought about literally following that verse!
In our country, one of the greatest health risks is obesity. Many Americans eat too much and exercise too little. If we would simply take the advice of the Bible, we could fix the problem pronto! Proverbs 23:2 says: "Put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite."
Obviously, you women have not read 1 Corinthians carefully. The Apostle Paul says that any woman who prays without covering her head should cut off her hair." (1 Corinthians 11:4-7)
The Bible has been used to support slavery and to abolish it; to keep women subject to men and to argue for their right to vote; to support capital punishment and to oppose it; to justify war and to produce pacifists.
The Scriptures include numerous voices that are not always in agreement. So, what do we do with the Bible? Choose the passages we like and discard those we don't? Conclude that it has too many contradictions or is too complex and simply set it aside? Or, can certain standards of interpretation provide us with the needed guidance?
Here are a few guiding principles that I find helpful as I seek to understand God's word for people living in the 21st century. First, Scripture interprets Scripture. There are a number of dominant themes that weave their way through the Scriptures. God is loving and calls on us to love others as ourselves. God is angered by injustice and calls on us to treat others the way we want to be treated. People are prone to sin; God is forgiving. When I encounter contradictory voices in Scripture, the dominant themes hold sway.
Second, I look to the tradition of the church. I do not simply open the Bible, read a verse and say, "Here is what I think this means." I study good minds from earlier centuries. What did Luther, Calvin and Knox say about this passage or doctrine? What did Augustine say about it in the fifth century or the early church leaders in the second century? Tradition does not bind my interpretation, but it helps me understand the development of certain teachings.
Third, I take into account the historical context. It's essential to remember that all of the Scriptures were written more than a millennium before the rise of science. In biblical times, people believed in a three-story universe with the earth at its center and heaven a short distance above the clouds. They had no conception of bacteria or viruses. They believed you became ill when evil spirits entered your body. Their explanations fit with how they understood the world, but as we have learned more about God's world and how it works, many pre-scientific understandings no longer make sense.
Also, I keep in mind the cultural context in which the Scriptures were written. The Hebrew Scriptures were written by, to and for the Jewish people. Most New Testament writings were written in a Greco-Roman culture. Both cultures were patriarchal. Women and children were considered little more than personal property. Slavery was an accepted practice. Some Scriptures have been interpreted as the word of God, when they were more likely norms of the culture in which they were written.
Fourth, God has given us brains. I employ, as you do, logic and reason to help me understand what a passage says and how it fits with our understanding of the world and our particular context.
Finally, Christ is the prism through which I view all Scripture. Jesus provides us with our best portrait of God and our best portrait of who God intends for us to become. We should give little weight to any passage of Scripture that contradicts what Jesus showed us about God or the kind of life we are called to live.
Computer chip manufacturer, Intel, has a graphic describing what happens in just one minute on the Internet. There are 100,000 tweets, 1.3 million video views on YouTube, 6 million views on Facebook, 20 million photos are viewed and 204 million emails are sent. Some days I feel as if I get half of them!
In this age of information overload, where many words are trivial and extraneous, it is easy to become distracted from the wisdom and insights that truly matter. The Scriptures have passed the test of time. For centuries, people from every conceivable race, culture and position in life have gleaned wisdom, purpose, comfort, strength and hope from their pages.
The Scriptures help me grasp in my head, my heart and my soul what really matters:
That love is the most important thing in the world and when I come to my final days, if I have not loved, my life has been a waste.
That God loves every person so much that God becomes angry when anyone is treated unjustly.
That God wants us to take care of each other.
That sacrificing for others is deeply satisfying.
That God is in the business of giving second chances. And thirds...
That people are more important than rules.
That self-centeredness makes us small.
That humility is a virtue.
That God can heal.
That prayer can be powerful.
That the desire for wealth and possessions can blind us to what is most important.
That life is sweet when we are loving, forgiving, generous and just.
That there are many temptations that can drive me a great distance from God, but nothing can separate me from God's love.
That God expects us to pursue justice.
That God calls us to be peacemakers.
That we should never give in to despair, because God can make a way when there seems to be no way.
That this physical world is not all there is.
For me, the Bible is the most important book in the world. It's not perfect, but it's priceless.
Prayers of the People ~ Rev. Thomas R. Stout
Psalm 63:1 - 8
O God, you are my God, I seek you.
my soul thirsts for you: my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
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