A Fresh Word

30 Jan A Fresh Word

A Fresh Word
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and Hebrews 4:12-13
January 26, 2020
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

Over the past three weeks, our Fresh sermon series has led us to consider a fresh start, fresh worship, and last week, thanks to Sheila Arnold’s storytelling, a fresh peace.  Today, we will engage scripture and what it could mean to experience the Bible as a fresh word.   

When we think of God’s Word, one of the first images that comes to mind is the word God gave to Moses on the mountain.  In Moses’ day, God’s Word was inscribed on tablets, just like today.

Well, okay, not exactly like today.  Moses’ tablets were made of stone, while ours are made of plastic, glass and silicone.

Perhaps you have read God’s Word on such a device yourself.  For guests at the Indigo Hotel in Newcastle, England, that’s the only option now available.  The management at the hotel swapped out the usual hardcover Gideon Bibles in each of its 148 guest rooms for an Amazon e-reader—a Kindle—that’s preloaded with the Bible.  Guests can download other religious texts free of charge, and other types of material for a small fee.

While the Indigo is part of a chain, the Newcastle location was chosen to test Kindles as Bible e-readers because that city was once one of the largest print centers in Great Britain, and the tablet introduction there pays tribute to the city’s literary past.  The idea is that if the Kindle experiment words well in Newcastle, it will be expanded to other locations.  

There is no data as yet on how many guests are actually delving into the Bible on the Kindles, but Gideon International estimates that about 25% of hotel guests read the printed Bibles found in their rooms, which means that each Bible potentially reaches 2300 people over its six-year life expectancy.

The Bible, in whatever format, has that kind of reach and power which is why the Apostle Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness…”  When Paul wrote this to Timothy, he wasn’t thinking of his own letters as Scripture, and the New Testament didn’t exist in Paul’s lifetime.  In fact, you could say that he and his missionary coworkers were still living what we call the New Testament.  

Paul is speaking of the Old Testament when he makes his statement to Timothy, a young man Paul is training and mentoring in ministry.  

It would still be several decades before the church identified the gospels, the Book of Acts, and certain epistles as Scripture.  But the apostles and other early church leaders recognized that with the coming of Jesus, God had done something new.  Earlier in his letter to Timothy, Paul says, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”  He was apparently in prison at the time of this letter.  He mentions being “chained like a criminal,” which he contrasts to “the Word of God [which] is not chained” (2:8-9).  The Word of God he’s talking about is the gospel of Jesus which became the heart of our New Testament.  So, in his letter, Paul commends to his younger colleague the Scriptures that we know as the Old Testament and the gospel that is the essence of the New Testament.  All of that is the Word of God, the book of our faith today.

The contrast Paul speaks of between his prison chains and the unchained Word of God is an important reality.  In our lives, we experience imprisoning situations, circumstances, or quandaries of mind that hem us in.  Yet the Bible has a freeing effect.  It breaks open the prisons that life builds around us.  There are times where that is true behind real bars.  But the Word of God can be just as freeing when we are in psychological, emotional, or circumstantial prisons.

Yet, if we’re truthful, it can sometimes be hard to fathom what scripture is saying, to get to the liberating message contained in its pages.  Why do we struggle so with the Bible?  For starters, it’s not easy reading.  The late Ellsworth Kalas served the United Methodist church as a pastor for 38 years and was also a professor, then president of Asbury Theological Seminary.  He once wrote, “our Bible is not what one would expect a book of religious instruction should be.  If you and I were preparing a book to bless and guide people’s lives, we wouldn’t include large portions of Numbers, Chronicles or Ezekiel.  And we’d organize it differently.  We have to acknowledge that this book has a style and a purpose of its own; and we confess that in a sense, it has succeeded in spite of itself.  On the surface, it isn’t the sort of book which looks like a bestseller.  It’s long, and there are many dull and difficult portions.  And while there is a plot, you have to pay attention if you’re to find it.”  How’s that for honesty?

Despite all that, Dr. Kalas still insisted that the plot was worth discovering, because it is a love story.  It is the tale of God and humanity.  The Bible tells us of God’s deep, faithful, eternal love for us.  So in that regard, the most poorly educated person who has to sound out the words of the Bible to read it but is trying to live by what it says is actually closer to the life force of God’s Word than the intellectual who reads it simply for its historical value.

That life force is what makes it a common experience to read a passage of scripture that you’ve heard or seen countless times before, but all of a sudden something new jumps out at you, some word of encouragement, hope, guidance or conviction or something that you needed to hear at that particular point in your life.  The Bible possesses an uncanny capacity to surprise us anew and afresh like that.  Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel has suggested that like the paintings of the great masters, the Scriptures “soak up” something from the lives of all the readers who have interacted with them over the ages.  I wonder if you’ve thought of yourself as connected to the saints who’ve gone before you and those who will come after you as you read and wrestle with scripture?

Dr. Kalas mentions the organization of the Bible as part of what makes it challenging reading.  Beyond the two major divisions, old and new testaments, the Bible is a collection of 66 different “books” written by dozens of authors, in three languages, over a period of a thousand years.  The writings include poetry and prose; epic narratives and short stories; legal codes; hymns and prayers; proverbs and riddles; letters and gospels; and a genre known as apocalyptic.   Just knowing which kind of literature you’re reading is critical.  Imagine how confused a modern reader would be to pick up a science fiction novel and think it was historical fact or to read a personal letter and not know that it was in fact a poem utilizing all the hyperbole and fanciful imagery available to a poet to express truth.  

Having a basic understanding of what the Bible is will certainly help us read it with fresh eyes.  But beyond that, if we’re going to hear a fresh word from Scripture, it will be because we read the Bible believing and anticipating that God has something to say to us.  Do you do that when you open the pages of Scripture?  Do you expect to encounter God?  Are you aware that God’s Spirit is active in your reading?  However difficult the layout or some of the language or however strange to our ears is the cultural context in which it was written, Scripture is God’s voice speaking to us, and this is what makes it different than any other kind of book.  It’s not the pages themselves, but the life of the Holy Spirit activating the truth of these pages in our own lives that makes these words life-changing.   

I think it’s important to acknowledge one additional difficulty with scripture.  It is sometimes hard for us to hear the Bible speak when we have witnessed or been on the receiving end of God’s Word being used more like a weapon than treated as God’s love story for humanity.  Even within the church itself, the Bible has been used to divide rather than unite, and that is nothing short of tragic, further evidence of our sin nature at work.  I want to suggest, not because I’m asking you to agree with me, but simply as something to consider:  could it be that the reason scripture is often so divisive is because it is much easier and convenient to fight about what the Bible is and what it says than to actually allow ourselves to be changed by it?  If we split into camps of those who dogmatically defend the story of Creation, for example, as either happening in six literal days or over millions of years through the process of evolution, doesn’t that let us off the hook from dealing with the real issue—of what it means that God is the Creator, regardless of how it was achieved or how long it took?  If we have a Creator, then we are not our own.  If we have a Creator, we owe our lives to Someone else, Someone who then rightfully has a say about how we live, what our conduct is to be, what our values and priorities are.  It’s so much easier to dig our heels in and fight about what’s in the Bible than to yield our lives to the scalpel that is scripture.  And that is true for people at all points along the theological and ethical spectrum.

From a very young age, I have been deeply passionate about the Bible, and that is a passion that has stayed with me throughout my lifetime.  I believe it’s been one of the Holy Spirit’s great gifts in my life.  Because of that passion, I am deeply invested in our experiencing God’s Word in fresh ways.  To that end, I will close by briefly offering you four metaphors that are different ways of reading the Bible.   My hope is that one or more of these will open fresh insight and joy in your experience of God’s Word.

First, the Bible is a finger pointing to God.  Anything that points to God is not asking us to believe in the thing itself but in that to which it points.  Being a Christian does not mean primarily believing in the finger, but in the God to which the finger points.  When you read a specific passage, look for where God is and what God is doing.

Second, the Bible is a lens through which we view God.  The lens is not perfect, it’s not complete but it is still the clearest view of God that we have.  Viewing scripture as a lens can help us more accurately understand the character of God and what the love of God both gives us and asks of us.

Third, the Bible is a sacrament like communion or baptism that enhances our experience of the presence of God.  Communion and baptism do not ask us to believe in the bread, the wine and the water themselves.  Instead, they act as a kind of go-between to deepen our connection and sense of God’s presence.

Fourth, as Peter put it in one of his letters, the Bible is “a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).  A lamp does not eliminate all darkness, but it enables us to find our way through it.  Scripture can speak to all kinds of issues and problems in our lives, both directly and indirectly.  When we feel like we’re feeling our way around in the dark, God’s Word can bring us enough light to know what the next step is.

All of this brings us to one final point which might be both obvious and redundant, but I’m going to say it anyway.  We cannot hear a Fresh Word and we cannot benefit from the Bible unless we know what’s in it.   Do you want a fresh experience of God speaking to you?  Open the book, people.  Open your Bible, and read it.

Let it be so!  Amen.

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