Reformation 2: The Word of God, October 1, 2017
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 1, John 1:1-5, 10-14
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, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was on internship, I had dinner with a member of the congregation. He had a question, and he wanted to know the answer. More specifically, he wanted to have a cut-and-dried simple answer to what was actually a very complicated question. And he wanted to know what the Bible said about it. But the problem was, it was a complicated issue, and the Bible said a lot of things about it, some of which contradicted or argued with other things the Bible said about it. There was no way to give a simple, cut-and-dried answer to his question without either twisting or ignoring some of the things the Bible had to say on that particular topic. And because of that, it was one of those issues where faithful, believing Christians can prayerfully read the Bible and come up with different answers—all of which are really and truly based in the word of God. So, I explained, it came down to interpretation, and point of view, and what weight we give to the different parts of Scripture. I told him how I interpreted those passages, and why, but I also told him how other Christians interpret it.
Now, I’ve had conversations like this a lot. The world is a big, complicated, messy place, and the Bible is a big, complicated, messy collection of books, and God is bigger and greater than anything we can imagine, and that means that there are a lot of places where you just can’t boil God’s Word down into a simple slogan or a verse or two to memorize and regurgitate. Personally, I find this comforting. No matter what happens, some other person of faith somewhere has had something like it happen to them, and chances are their story is recorded in the Bible. And no matter how messed-up the situation is, no matter how closely good and evil are intertwined, no matter what is at stake, we as Christians don’t have to try and force the situation into some sort of one-size-fits-all platitude that ignores a lot of the reality of the situation.
I remember this conversation in particular because by the end of it, we were going around in circles. See, he really wanted the one-size-fits-all platitude. More than that, he sort of assumed that the Bible was a textbook for life and faith, and that we as Christians would be graded on how well we knew it. Just like a textbook in school, where you memorize the right answers and then regurgitate them on the test, and if you have enough right answers memorized you pass and if you don’t you fail. Except that in this case, “passing” means going to heaven and “failing” means going to hell. So the idea that things were more complicated than just memorizing the right Bible verse was a problem to him. It yanked the carpet right out from under his feet.
“But how do you know?” he kept asking. “How do you know if you’re right?”
“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I replied. “You trust that the God who inspired the people who wrote the Bible, and who inspired the people who collected it and edited it and copied it and translated will still be with us today as we read it and talk about it and figure out what it means for us today.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” he asked. “What if you get the wrong answer?”
“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I said. “God isn’t standing there with a clipboard looking for reasons to send people to hell. God is full of grace and mercy and forgiveness, and if you’re genuinely and honestly trying to be faithful, he will be faithful to you, even if you do mess up. Everybody messes up, sometimes, and God loves us anyway.”
“But how can you be certain?” he said.
“You can’t,” I said. “You just have to trust in the grace and mercy of God.” And on, and on, it went. He could not accept anything other than a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all answer to his question, because he wanted a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all view of the Bible. And he put his trust in the Bible so deeply that he had trouble trusting in God. He thought that if he didn’t have the right answer, if he couldn’t figure it out and know for certain what he was supposed to think and believe, he was in danger.
Ironic, isn’t it? The Bible is the Word of God! It’s supposed to point us to God, and help our faith grow! And yet, paradoxically, sometimes when we put our trust in the Bible, that actually prevents us from trusting in God, because what we’re trusting in is our own ability to figure out the right answer. (Remember how last week I talked about the temptation to put things other than Jesus Christ at the heart of our faith? This is another one of them.)
The Word of God is important. It’s the most important thing there is … but what exactly is the Word of God? Well, according to John 1, Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. Jesus Christ is God’s Word become flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth. Jesus Christ is the Word that God spoke in the beginning, separating out light from darkness and ordering the primordial chaos. That Word is part of God, together with the Father and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is the Word through which all things were made, and without Jesus there is neither light nor life. (As Christians, we believe that Jesus is at the heart of everything.)
So if Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, what does that mean for the Bible? Well, the Bible is not the living Word of God. The Bible is a collection of words about God. God inspired those words when they were being told and re-told by the ancient Jewish people. God inspired those words when they were first written down, and when they were gathered together, and when they were edited over the centuries, and when they were copied and handed down, and when they were translated. At each step of the way, God has been inspiring them and using them to speak to people. And every time we come together to hear these words and preach and teach using them, God is still here, inspiring us and speaking through those words. The Bible is special because there is no other collection of writings anywhere in the world that God has spoken through as reliably and as often as God has spoken through the Bible. But we always have to remember that we don’t worship the Bible. We worship the God who speaks to us through the Bible, and who also speaks to us through many other ways. We worship Jesus Christ our Lord, the Living Word of God.
In ancient times, after God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and before leading them into the Promised Land, God gave them the first part of what would come to be the Bible—the laws, commandments, and teachings, that, along with stories of their ancestors in the faith, form the first five books of the Bible. But while God was giving them all of these words to remember, God gave them something very simple, something that they should always remember, no matter what. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” That’s the core of all those teachings. That’s the center. That’s what they were to remember every minute of every day, in everything that they did. If you remember that, then all the rest of the commandments and teachings and stories are meaningful and life-giving, and lead us to God. If you forget that, they’re just words on a page.
Martin Luther used to put it this way: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the manger in which the infant Christ is laid. We worship God. And where do we find stories about God? Where do we find a record of what God has done in, with, and through God’s people? Where do we find stories of our ancestors in the faith? Where do we find stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord? We find them in many places, but the Bible is the best. God speaks to us through many things: through nature, through works of literature and art, through the community of believers, through many other ways—even science, sometimes. But the Bible is the way that God has most often and consistently spoken to believers.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God that transforms our lives, saves us from sin and death and all the powers of this world, and raises us from the power of the grave. God’s Word is the means of grace through which God transforms our lives. Jesus himself is the living Word made flesh. The Bible is the living water through which God nourishes us, so that like trees that can withstand crisis and yet bear fruit, we live lives of faithfulness and love. Scripture itself doesn’t give life, because life can only come from God. But scripture is a necessary part of the conditions for a life of faith to grow. It’s like rain. Rain is not what makes a seed alive. But without enough of it at the right times, that seed isn’t going to amount to much.
May the living Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, live in our hearts and minds. And may the