Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2019
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 146, 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5, John 8:31-36
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
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.
When Martin Luther set out to reform Christianity and fix the things that he saw were broken in the church, one of the problems that was most important to him was how little ordinary Christians knew about the Bible. At the time, it was a crime to translate the Bible into the language people actually spoke in their day-to-day lives. When the Bible was read, it was usually read in a Latin translation called the Vulgate. Only scholars and the wealthy elites were fluent in Latin; not even all parish priests could read it. And the church liked it that way: if ordinary people couldn’t read the Bible, then they couldn’t form opinions of their own. They would have to believe Scripture said and meant whatever the church hierarchy said it did.
You see, Peter was neither the first nor the last person to notice that human beings often have itchy ears and turn to teachers who suit their own desires. We human beings are masters at manipulating the truth to make it say what we want to hear. We are very, very good at finding ways to interpret Scripture, the law, and reality itself so that it fits whatever we want to believe, even if that means twisting ourselves into a pretzel. We take things out of context. We make mountains out of molehills. We flat-out ignore things we don’t like. And there is no person or group of people immune to the desire to do this. If you are sitting here thinking self-righteously about all the people you disagree with or dislike who creatively interpret everything from Scripture to science to current events in order to make it fit the way they want it to be, I have bad news for you: you almost certainly do it to. Knowing this about human nature, the medieval church tried to prevent misinterpretation of God’s Word by restricting it to only a few. If you couldn’t read Scripture for yourselves, you would have to accept what the church leaders told you it said and what it meant.
That strategy has two major flaws: first, it drastically underestimates how good humans are at creatively misinterpreting things. The less you know about something, the easier it is to twist it to suit your own ideas, so restricting the reading of Scripture led to more misinterpretation, not less. And second, this strategy assumed that the church leadership and hierarchy would not themselves fall prey to the temptation to interpret Scripture to their own benefit. And, as it turned out, when they did fall prey to that temptation, since few people outside their ranks could read Scripture, few people could point out the problems with their teachings. The more familiar people are with Scripture, the easier it is to see when someone’s interpreting it for their own benefit.
Today we put lots of effort into translating the Bible into the common language. There are hundreds of translations into English, and there are multiple organizations dedicated to translating the Bible into every language on Earth. The house I grew up in, like most Christian households, had many Bibles which I could choose to read whenever I wanted to. Unfortunately, I very rarely chose to do so. And I’m not alone in that. For every funeral I do where the deceased had a beloved Bible with creased and dog-eared pages and helpfully underlined or highlighted passages, I do probably ten or twenty where neither the deceased nor anyone else in the family has spent enough time studying Scripture to have any preferences. I’m not saying this to shame anyone, I’m just saying that this is the reality we live in. If, as Peter says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” what does it say about us that we so seldom turn to Scripture except on Sunday mornings?
There are many reasons for this, of course, but one of the main ones is that the Bible is a big, complicated story full of lots of smaller stories. It’s messy. It contradicts itself. There are parts of it that are hard to understand, and parts that are boring, and parts that are gross and disturbing. It’s really easy to open your Bible, find a passage that you either don’t understand or that is really nasty, think “what the heck am I supposed to learn from THIS?” close your Bible again, and go away feeling guilty for not being a good enough Christian. It’s also really easy to be afraid of reading the Bible and taking away the wrong message, or interpreting it badly, so we don’t even try.
I think part of this problem is that most people—even most Christians—don’t really understand what the Bible is. It’s not a textbook. It’s not a history textbook, or a science textbook, or even a religion textbook. It’s not a list of facts to memorize so that you can pass a test. It’s not a law book; it’s not a set of rules to follow blindly. It’s more like sitting in the living room with the family scrapbook, with your grandparents and all your aunts and uncles gathered around, hearing the family stories about where you come from and how you all came to be here, and what happened along the way. They tell you why things are the way they are. And some of the stories are funny and some are sad and some you just had to be there for, and sometimes grandma and grandpa argue about how exactly it all happened, but even if the details are fuzzy sometimes, the stories they tell are true and real. And if you listen to those stories enough, if you ask questions and think about the answers and come back to those stories day after day, you’ll find that they shape how you see the world. Not just how you see the past, but how you see the present and the future, as well. Those stories will shape how you see yourself and how you see those around you. And listening to those stories and responding to them will build your relationship with the people telling them.
The Bible is a little like that. The Bible is the story of God at work in the world, from creation to the end times. And the Bible is the story of God at work in the world, working to heal and safe and re-form the world, even in the midst of human sin and brokenness and evil. These stories tell us truths about who we are and who God is, and about the world, and the more we read Scripture the more we are shaped by it. The more time we spend reading our Bibles, and praying about what we read, and thinking about it, and talking about it with others, the more likely we are to conform our hearts and minds to God’s Word, instead of twisting it to suit what we want to believe. And in the process of studying Scripture, we strengthen our relationship with God.
The Bible is big, and messy, and complicated, because life is big, and messy, and complicated. Sometimes the Bible doesn’t have a clear answer to a particular question; sometimes the Bible has multiple conflicting answers to a particular question. And that’s because sometimes life doesn’t have one clear answer that is correct and everything else is wrong. But like I said, the point of reading Scripture isn’t to memorize the right answer to any particular question. The point is to wrestle with the stories and be shaped by them, and to build our relationship with God in the process. Even the weirdest, darkest, hardest-to-understand parts of scripture have truths to teach us. Sometimes that truth is simply that human beings can do terrible things, even when we believe in God and are trying our best to follow him. Sometimes that truth is that even when human beings screw up, God is still present in us and with us.
I encourage you to set time aside regularly to read your Bible, whether by yourself or with your family, and pray about what you read. Don’t start from the beginning and try to read everything in order if that’s not working for you; it’s better to stick to things you can make sense of than get bogged down and give up. But as you’re reading, and praying, ask yourself questions about the story. What truths might God be trying to teach through the story? How does that particular story fit with other Bible stories you know? Is there anything in the story you agree with, or disagree with, and why? Is the message easy or hard to hear or live out? Does anything remind you of things in your life or in the world around you? Don’t be afraid to ask questions you don’t know the answer to, and if things come up you’re not sure of I would be overjoyed to talk about it with you. If you do this regularly, you will find your faith life getting stronger. You will find your relationship with God getting deeper, and you will find yourself understanding more and more about Scripture.