I preach from extensive notes, not a full manuscript. I’ve filled in the gaps here and there so that the ideas flow on screen, but please excuse the grammatical short-cuts. Writing the spoken word is not like writing the written word!
I am highly indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton for parts of this message. While I never use a sermon that is not my own word-for-word, I have relied more heavily than usual on his insights. To listen to HIS sermon on this subject, go to: http://www.cor.org/worship/sermon-archives/show/sermons/Making-Sense-of-the-Bible/. It is well worth the time!
And here is my sermon: “Many Stories, One Story, God’s Story”
What is the Bible? Lots of answers…
- Best-selling book of all time
- Ink on a page
- 375 mL of ink printing 777,692 words on 875 pages – give or take a few!
- A Library – a collection of 66 books, divided into two “testaments” (witnesses), each with their own unique point of view and occasion for writing
- Yet…One Story
Lots of ways to read that one story…
You can legitimately read the Bible as ancient mythology, for example. Genesis is often read alongside Gilgamesh, for example. Interesting parallels…thoughtful reflection on human experience of life…
Similar…study the Bible as a historical document. Then you’ll find that the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts are remarkably well preserved. There are thousands of copies of the Old Testament, and perhaps as many as 25,000 of the New Testament – but only about 650 copies of Homer’s Iliad, the next most well-preserved ancient literature.
Reading the Bible as literature or as historical document is legitimate; it is both! It was written by human authors in particular times and places, and can be studied just like other literary work might be studied.
But…reading that way isn’t really Christian. It isn’t contradictory with Christian reading. But it doesn’t require any commitment to the text other than as interesting writing.
So how do we read the Bible, as Christians?
- Like an owners’ manual. The acronym: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
Problem – Bible doesn’t really work that way. If we’re expecting simple step-by-step instructions for life’s difficult moments, we’ll be disappointed.
- Like a Magic 8 Ball. The old joke about playing Bible Roulette: Open your Bible randomly to a page, and read wherever your finger falls.
- Judas hung himself.
- Go thou and do likewise.
Probably not the best way to read the Bible!
- Like a textbook. Does the Bible contain historical information? Sure. But its emphasis is more on why events in history occurred, rather than how they happened. Biblical authors were not writing with the intention of teaching historical fact or scientific theory, and we shouldn’t expect all the details to be spelled out as if they were. There is much in the Bible that is fully consistent with what we know of history and science, but there are also inconsistencies that might be attributed to literary genre, cultural context and scribal liberties. These do not negate the truth of the Bible.
All of these are valid ways of reading the Bible, at some point in our lives, and for particular reasons. They aren’t wrong.
But we want to read the Bible as more than just ancient mythology, historical document, owners’ manual, answer guide, or textbook. How, then, do we read it?
We read it as ONE STORY. One story that sweeps across history that changes the world. All the particular stories – of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter, even Jesus – all of those stories point to the overarching story of God and what God has done. They are all humans who appear as supporting characters in God’s story – not the other way around.
God’s story – as told in…
…and written over 1400 years
by more than 40 individual authors
It’s a big story! But I told our confirmation students last spring, it’s a story we can summarize in 30 seconds.
It starts with God – a God who has so much love to give that creation spills forth, so that God has something to love. And that creation culminates in the creation of men and women, people made in the image of God, to love and be loved.
So the story begins with God and God’s people, together. God takes afternoon strolls through the garden with them!
And then…and then sin gets in the way. Adam and Eve choose to go against God, to separate themselves from God. And the result is that they are ashamed to be seen by God, to be known. They are cast out of the garden, away from God’s presence. God and God’s people are torn apart by sin.
The whole rest of the story – from the third chapter of Genesis clear through Revelation – is God doing WHATEVER IT TAKES to be with God’s beloved people again. The Tabernacle and then the Temple allow God’s presence to be near – but still separate from the people. Prophets speak of God – but there is still a barrier.
And then, finally, God removes that barrier once and for all. God takes on flesh. Comes to people as one of them – Immanuel, God with us – Jesus. And Jesus takes on all the pain and the suffering and the sin that separates us from God, and at his death the Temple curtain is torn in two – the barrier is removed. There is a way for God to be with God’s people again!
And now we live toward the time, at the end of time, when there will be no more sorrow, no more tears, no more pain to separate us from God’s presence. The veil that was torn will be removed completely, and God will be with God’s people again in a gleaming new city of God.
That’s the Biblical story – a story that gives life and changes the world. God’s story.
Story – narrative – “has a capacity for embodying complexity…for holding in tension competing ideas…and for transformation…” (Between Two Horizons, Green & Turner, p 17). It isn’t as black-and-white as an answer guide, or as obvious as a well-written instruction manual. But stories can hold truth in a way that lists and bullet points can’t.
We live in a polarized world. We don’t need more “basic instructions for living” or more sound-byte ideology. What we need is narrative – sustained attention to a story that can draw together the disparate, divided poles of our lives, our country and our world. A story that has room enough for rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, to find meaning in its pages.
I believe that the Bible is that story that speaks to us across cultural divides, economic disparities, and political disagreements. I believe it is a story that provides meaning and context for the best moments of our lives, the worst moments of our lives, and the mundane moments of our lives. I believe it is a story in which we encounter God.
So I invite you to read that story with me…and to read it in three ways:
- Seeking to submit to the text. Understanding that it will – should – can – change us. Challenge us. Call into question our assumptions. Make us think differently about ourselves, our world.
- Keeping the whole story in mind. There will be parts we don’t understand or just plain don’t like. Apparent contradictions. Seemingly unnecessary violence. Parts that seem discredited by today’s scientific understanding. I don’t believe we should ignore those things. We’re not asked to read it uncritically, but thoughtfully. Wrestle with the difficult parts. Read one part in light of another. Realize that some parts may only make sense when the story reaches completion at the end of time.
- Acknowledge that it is God who speaks to us in this story. As such, it is “able to make you wise for salvation…God-breathed, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training and righteousness, so that the people of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Scripture is God-breathed – some translations, inspired by God – this is the only place in Greek literature where this word is used. It appears as if Paul made it up to explain the unique way that God speaks to us, inspires us, shapes us. God spoke and we were created…through God’s words we continue to be created, molded, formed into the people God desires us to be. Thanks be to God!