September 10, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Karl Barth was the greatest theologian of the last two hundred years. His teachings fundamentally reshaped and reoriented the church for generations. Barth was a professor in Germany resisted the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, and he wrote one of the strongest condemnations of the Nazi movement from a biblical Christian perspective. Years after the war, Barth was on a speaking tour in America giving lectures at universities and seminaries. At the end of one of his lectures he was receiving questions from the audience when a student stood up and asked, “Dr. Barth, can you summarize your theology in one sentence?” This was one of the greatest religious scholars ever, a hero of his generation. A man who had written so many books that it would take almost a lifetime to read them all. And this student wanted one sentence? Just one sentence? Barth thought for just a second and then he answered, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”
As you’ve heard, this week we are kicking off a 12-week sermon series that will seek to connect us to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this fall. The protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin and countless other men and women around Europe placed a strong emphasis on the importance of the Bible as the source and authority for making decisions in the church. “Sola Scriputra,” they proclaimed in Latin. “Scripture Alone” should be the guide as they purged the church of human traditions and medieval superstitions.
To go back to the basics, back to the source today, we have to ask, what the Bible actually is in the first place. It might sound wonderful to say that scripture is our guide, but when I open these pages, more often than not, it doesn’t read like a guide book. We talk so much about the Bible; Presbyterians are known as “people of the Word.” We parade it into worship every Sunday, we say and sing it its words each week. We structure our Sunday Schools and Bible studies here at the church all around seeking to learn more about the truths contained in its pages. Not only that, but it’s all around us in our culture as well. Every few years another controversy pops up about whether it is appropriate to use the Bible in one setting or another. Presidents, judges, and other elected officials place their hands on it when they are sworn into office. Fanatics paint its verses on signs and hold them up at sporting events or on the street corner, angry radio talk show hosts throw around its words as weapons to attack anyone they disagree with.
But what is the Bible? Well, let’s rule out a few things that the Bible is not. It isn’t a repository of all knowledge about the world. If we treat it as a science book or a history book or a cookbook we miss the point of its what it truly is.
Neither is it merely a law book, though it does contain many rules or laws as broad as the Ten Commandments and as specific as instructions what to eat, or what to wear…like no seersucker after Labor Day. I’m sure that’s in there somewhere. Some folks have certainly approached the Bible as if it were merely a book of laws to apply to all situations in life. Jesus interacted with them quite a lot. They were called the Pharisees, and they ended up condemning and conspired to kill Jesus for breaking the Bible’s laws because of who he touched and shared meals with, who he welcomed, what he ate and drank, what he did on the Sabbath, and ultimately how he showed forgiveness and grace. I recently met someone who introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Bob and I’m a recovering Pharisee.” If only more of us could recover from it as well. For in light of Jesus’ resurrection, we are called to abandon our death dealing tendencies to fixation on literalistic, moralistic, self-serving readings of scripture that blind us to what God is really doing in our lives and in the world.
So then, what is the Bible? Well, one answer—a good answer—is to say, it is “the word of God.” That’s what we say each week in worship right: “The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” But what does that even mean? The word of God? Did God write this book? Well no, of course not, it came from a printer. But the words inside it? Well, they were translated into English by a group of scholars from ancient parchments and fragments of scrolls written in Hebrew and Greek. And the truth is none of those parchments were identical to one another and some a very different as they had been edits and altered through the generations. So, another group of historical and literary scholars had to make their best educated guess as to which words to even translate in the first place.
There are no surviving original copies of any of the books of the Bible. But maybe we could say, hypothetically, that if we had access to those originals documents, those would be the word of God, right? The direct unmediated word of God? Well, I’m afraid its still a bit complicated. You see, that’s not how Christians have ever understood the Bible to have been written. There was not some direct divine authorship. God didn’t open up the brains of those who wrote the Bible, dump in the words, and then command them to write down exactly what they were told…like some ancient version of a word processor. For Muslims with the Koran or for Mormons with the Book of Mormon, there is a belief in a kind of unmediated direct revelation of the holy word in written form, but not for Christians with the Bible.
Instead, we have traditionally understood the Bible to be inspired by the Holy Spirit working in, with, through, and sometimes, in spite of the human authors who actually composed the stories, poems, letters and laws, visions and teachings of the book. Human authors with their own limited human worldviews who were nonetheless pointing to something, or someone, beyond themselves. And this inspiring, in-spiriting, God-breathing work of the Holy Spirit continued to guide those who transmitted, collected, translated and spread the scriptures through the centuries as well. Not because of the words on the page, but the one whom they pointed to.
For Christians, the Word of God, is more than merely the letters that are in print in this book. The Word of God is first and foremost not a writing or an idea or a law or a teaching. The Word of God is a person. One person. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” That didn’t make sense to followers of other religions. What do you mean your God speaks through the life of a human being? But that is precisely what they proclaimed. The Word made flesh. The Incarnation. Jesus Christ himself is the clearest self-revelation, of God. Which means that to know God’s word is always personal and relational. It doesn’t mean to know something, but someone. Someone who loves you more than you could every know. The one who came as no other ever has to transform the world. To know Him is to encounter truth, wisdom, and light that changes us, changes what we thought we know about God and about ourselves.
A question that is often asked, usually as a trap, is “Do you believe in the Bible?” Do you? Do you believe in the Bible? Well, an honest, faithful, Christian answer is to say, “No.” No, our faith is not in a book but in the self-revealing God, whom we encounter and discover through this book. We do not place our faith, our hope, our trust and love in the prophet Isaiah or the laws of Moses, the letters of Paul or the gospel of John. No, we believe in God’s Word made flesh. We believe in Jesus Christ, whom we meet first and foremost in the Bible. The Bible is the witness. As Karl Barth wrote (in that document condemning the Nazi’s seizure of power) “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”[i] Jesus himself says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Now, let’s be clear, this isn’t in any way an attack or a slam against the Bible. No, in fact it is a joyful, thankful, celebration of the true gift that it is to us. The Bible is rightly called “the word of God” because it is the witness to the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. But it isn’t just one witness among many. To borrow our Presbyterian language: the Bible is “the unique and authoritative witness”[ii] to God’s self-revelation. Unique and authoritative. Without the Bible we have no access to this relational love of God in Jesus Christ. Without the Bible we have no knowledge of the author of all creation or the meaning behind the gift of life. Without the Bible we know nothing of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, or judgement. Without the Bible we have no way to experience or relate to the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us. Without the Bible we have no church, no worship, no mission, no ministry of reconciliation, no hopeful proclamation that in life and in death we belong to God. The Bible is truly a gift of great value to the Christian community, but it isn’t an end in and of itself. As we read this morning from our Psalm, the scripture is rightly called “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path” but that path leads somewhere…to someone.
Before Martin Luther was famous for starting the Reformation, he was a trained biblical scholar responsible for teaching the Bible to students. Luther loved the Bible not as something to believe in itself, but because it presented to him the one Lord, Jesus Christ, in whom his believe was placed. Luther had a wonderful metaphor to explain this relationship of distinction and unity. Remember the story of Christmas, that we tell every year about Mary and Joseph and the angels and the shepherds (the one that Linus narrates so wonderfully in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special). The most important part of that Christmas story comes when, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7) Luther said that is the clearest image of what the Bible is for us. It is the manger and the swaddling cloths, which hold the Word made flesh so that we can meet him. The shepherds didn’t come to kneel before tattered pieces of cloth. No one would worship and devote their lives to serving the manger…but to the Lord who laid within it. The same is the case with the Bible. We don’t worship and serve the words written on the page, but the one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is born to us through its pages.
Friends, the good News of the gospel, the good news amidst this world full of so much darkness, so much fear and terror, tragedy and trials, the good news is that the Light shines in the darkness. The Word comes to the world, comes to us as flesh and blood. Our God doesn’t wait on us to come and find God. No, our God, choses to come to us, to seek us out to reveal God’s self to us. Our God comes to us to transform us, redeem us, forgive us, and save us. God’s truth, God’s word, God’s wisdom and revelation is always personal because it is always grounded in the person of Jesus Christ, revealed to us through the Bible. And ithis personal truth of God always leads us into more loving personal relationships with our brothers and sisters both near and afar.
The good news of the gospel is…well, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” To God alone be the glory. Amen.
[i] “The Theological Declaration of Barmen” in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions.
[ii] “The Confession of 1967” in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions.