The power of the Word

Lent Wednesday 2—Scripture reading

March 19, 2014

Psalm 119:105-112, Isaiah 55:6-11, Matthew 13:7-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you hear an American Christian talk about the Bible today, the most common phrase is something like this: “The Bible says it, I believe it.”  And who can argue with that?  But there’s an underlying attitude to that phrase that can be a big problem: it’s a tendency to treat the Bible, God’s Holy Word, like a textbook.  Textbooks explain objectively provable facts with clear explanations that one memorizes to regurgitate on a test.  You can generally boil the facts in a textbook into simple premises to memorize.  You don’t have to spend much time thinking about it; you don’t have to spend time wondering about how it affects your life, you don’t have to wrestle with anything difficult or contradictory.  Once you’ve learned the material, you don’t have to come back and re-read it because it will stay exactly the same.  If you can get a handout from the teacher with a summary of the material, you don’t even need to read the textbook itself, just memorize what the teacher wants to hear!  And if you come back to a textbook ten years after learning the material, well, you’re not going to learn anything you didn’t already learn from it.

The Bible is not that simple.  Isaiah says that God’s Word is like the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, bringing the water that things need to grow.  And God’s thoughts aren’t like our thoughts; they’re greater than we are.  Trying to boil them down into something simple and easy is kind of like trying to predict the weather.  We know that snow and rain will come, but they don’t come on cue.  And even the smartest people with the best equipment can’t completely predict the rain and the snow; the forces involved are just too complicated and too big.  And yet, the rain and the snow come, and the ground is nourished, and things grow.  And the things that grow give life to all of creation.  God sends out God’s Word just like he sends out the rain and snow, and things happen because of it.  Things grow, and that life and growth is a gift to the whole world.  That growth is not just something that can be memorized and put back on the shelf.

Or consider the parable of the sower—in this metaphor Jesus says that the Word is like a seed.  It gets spread everywhere—God doesn’t just give the seed to the good soil, he gives it to every patch of ground there is.  And in each of those places, something happens.  What happens on the path is not the same as what happens in the good soil; instead of new plants springing up from the seed, the seed on the path gets eaten by the birds.  But the birds are God’s creatures, too, beloved by God.  When the Word is spread, things happen.  Those things may not be what we anticipated or expected or chosen, but they are what God has chosen.

Or consider the psalmist’s words: God’s Word is a lamp lighting her way.  It’s not just passively sitting there, it’s doing something.  It’s making a difference in the psalmist’s life, and that difference changes depending on the circumstances.  Think about it: you need a flashlight when you’re taking a walk outside at night, and when the power goes out, or when you’re trying to do something difficult in a tight space.  Each time, that light is necessary, it opens up possibilities, but those possibilities are different depending on what’s going on in your life.

Every week I go to a Pastor’s Bible Study where we study the Scripture readings assigned for the coming Sunday.  For those of you who don’t know, many churches including our own use a three-year cycle of Bible passages for Sunday worship.  So the readings we heard last Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent 2014, we’ll hear again in three years on the Second Sunday of Lent 2017.  They don’t change.  When people hear that, they ask, “so, do you just have three years’ worth of sermons and repeat them?”  No, I don’t; I couldn’t.  You see, when I read a passage from the Bible I usually notice something I haven’t noticed before, even if the passage is an old favorite.  The passage hasn’t changed, but God may be using those same words to say something different to me.  Or maybe it’s that I’ve changed, and with new ears I can hear more clearly God’s message for me.  Or maybe it’s that my life and circumstances have changed, and so I’m looking for different things.  Usually, it seems to be a combination of those three things.  And I’ve asked veteran pastors, retired pastors who had thirty years of preaching on the same texts and preached on each text at least ten times.  Yes, they all say, every time I come back to these passages I see something different.  The letters on the page haven’t changed, but God’s Word isn’t ink on dead trees, or even pixels on a screen: God’s Word is alive, and it does things, to us and to our world.

Instead of a textbook, the Bible is more like sitting on the couch with your grandparents and the family photo album.  You get all the family stories—who we are, where we come from, why we do the things we do.  What’s important to us, and why; what relationships have made us who we are today.  And you get all the little things—recipes and jokes and proverbs and such—at the same time.  It’s the wisdom of your family, passed on to you.  It gives you roots.  You can sit down with the family album many times, but the stories will be told differently each time, and sometimes there will be different versions of the same story.  The Bible is the photo album of the family of God, telling the stories about who we are and why we are the way we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  We need those stories to give our faith roots, to know who we are and why we are and where we came from and where we’re going.  You don’t get that by memorizing a couple of key verses.  You get that by reading and rereading it, by paying attention to what God’s doing with those words.  In that way, you open up possibilities for God’s Word to grow in you and shine a light on your path.  Thanks be to God for that light, for that growth.

Amen.

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