Epiphany 3 … January 24, 2016, Pastor Phil Fenton
“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Nehemiah 8:9
16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:16-21
Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each heart be acceptable to you, O LORD. Not acceptable to me, not acceptable to us, not acceptable to others. Acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We gather. Announcements are given. Sins are confessed. We sing songs of praise. We pray. The children come for their time and then go back to their seats. We make a few quick adjustments: physically, in our seats; mentally we turn a corner. We are about to hear readings from the Bible.
Someone reads a passage. They pause and finish with Word of God. Word of Life. And we respond Thanks be to God! It’s automatic; it’s our normal.
But what have we done, really? I wish sometime we would just stop after the readings and ask, “What is happening in you right now?”, and then let anyone speak who wants to – say whatever it is they want to say, no matter how it sounds to the rest of us.
I wish, too, that you could see from this vantage point what goes on when scripture is read. Sure, you’ll to see a yawn or two. Hey, it’s normal. I’m used to it. In fact, someone has said that “preaching is the fine art of talking in other peoples’ sleep!” You’ll catch movement, as this moment for some signals a bathroom break.
But you are just as likely to see a smile, or a sudden flush at a truth revealed, or the relieved nod at hope reborn. And it’s not uncommon to see tears.
The people wept, we are told, at the reading of scriptures. These exiles have returned from captivity to begin the slow process of rebuilding Jerusalem which includes reestablishing the rituals of the faith community. Outside the gate the ritual readings are delivered, and the people understand them and begin to weep and wail and mourn. They weep because they know who they are in the light of the law and how they have grieved the One who brought them out of exile. They weep because they are afraid that God knows what they know. They will be told to stop their weeping, because the Lord’s joy over them is constant and never-ending, but right now it is time to weep. The Word of God has made them weep.
There was a time when my dad would weep at nothing. Then the time came when he wept at everything. A rather stoic, emotionally inaccessible man in his younger years, he wept at the slightest provocation in his old age. He was especially undone in church. He wept over misdeeds and regrets. He wept at the announcement of God’s forgiveness. He had to weep to find his joy again.
The older I get the more I understand. But you don’t have to be old. Doesn’t it happen to you too? You let your guard down for even a minute and the Word slices through your defense and surprises you and you can’t hold back the tears. You’re not an emotional person, at least not in public. But then someone comes to the lectern and the prodigal returns home to open arms, the Lord comes to walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death, you’re told that to find your life you need to take up a cross and lose your life, and suddenly it’s the truest thing you know, and the Word spoken is now the Word on your heart and you are weeping. Weeping with regret. Weeping with joy. Words of God now are Words of life.
And it is not out of the ordinary to see the look of skepticism – “I don’t know. I just don’t know. The Word of God? I don’t think so. God cannot be contained in words on a page. These are the words of people. And people are prone not only to error but to twisting things according to their own biases.”
Word of God. Word of Life. What are we saying?
We’re not all on the same page, you know. 33years ago I interviewed for a new call. Verna Anderson wanted a word with me in private. “I hear you young preachers coming out of the seminary don’t believe in the Bible anymore. I need to know that you believe in the Bible if you’re going to be my pastor!”
“You’ll have to tell me more,” I said. She continued, “Jonah and the Whale, for instance. Do you believe it really happened?”
“First of all,” I said, “the Bible doesn’t say ‘whale’. It says, ‘sea serpent’ or ‘sea monster’, probably Leviathan – that sea creature mentioned in Psalm 104. Mrs. Anderson, why don’t you tell me the story of Jonah.”
And she told me the story – perfectly – she knew every detail. “Now,” I said, “tell me whythe author wrote that story. What does it say about God and our relationship to God and how we are to live as God’s people?” And she didn’t have a clue! She knew the story, the Word of God; she believed it of utmost importance that it should be understood as an historical event, but she didn’t begin to know what God wanted us to know through that Word. It was the Word of God, but there was no Life in it!
I love the Bible. For 53 years I have read it, studied it, dissected its passages, taught and preached its messages. I love it. I believe the Bible communicates the Word of God. Do I believe in the Bible? That question confuses me. It means different things to different people. Some mean by it, “Do you believe the Bible is inerrant (without mistake), theliteral Word of God (God whispered the words directly into the ear of passive authors)? Do you believe that every story in the Bible is historical fact?” My answer to these questions is “I don’t find them helpful. They’re the wrong questions to ask about the Bible. So what if you have the right doctrine about the Bible but miss the relationship God wants to have with you, miss the LIFE to which he calls you?”
I love the Bible. But I do not worship the Bible. I love all of the Bible – even those parts that make me uncomfortable. But I don’t love the Bible because of logic. In fact, what I love most about the Bible is what is illogical, unnatural. And does it get any more unnatural than this: “God’s Word became flesh.”? I don’t believe in the Bible, in words written on paper, but I do believe in the God of the Bible. And I do so because of this further unnatural truth: in the words written on the page, I have come to know God personally. God in flesh, Jesus Christ the God-person, has stepped forward from the pages alive and large. Through the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of Jonah and the Sea Monster, through all the stories of the Bible, I have come to know God and love God. And in knowing and loving God I have found my life’s meaning and ultimate purpose. The Word of God is a Word of Life.
John will say later in his book, Chapter 20:31, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” Have what in his name? LIFE. Life in his name – not knowledge, or proper doctrine, or gold stars for memorizing the most Bible passages – but that you might have LIFE – AT ITS BEST. LIFE is what God is interested in.
And God is interested in your life. In becoming flesh, God got mixed up in where you live and where you work and where you go to school and where you buy your groceries and where you entertain yourself – so that your story and your words, your run-or-the-mill ordinary life, can become God’s story, God’s Word to someone else, bringing God’s Life to them.
The Word of God is not words on a page but a Person who brought the saving presence of God to us. The Word of God is a way of life that brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to those in captivity, opens eyes that are blind to need, and mobilizes people to action on behalf of the oppressed. The Word of God does not deliver complicated lectures on the biological workings of disease and the human body; the Word of God touches the diseased body, visits the sick in the hospital. The Word of God doesn’t conduct extensive research projects on the social, political and economic impact on the world’s poor; the Word of God feeds the hungry. The Word of God is a Word of Life!
For centuries there has been debate in Christianity over just how Christ is present in the Sacrament of the altar. The debate goes on today. What I am more interested in, however, is how Christ is present in those who have dined at the table. I am more interested in how they will embody that Word they have taken into themselves and the Life they will set in motion accordingly.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopalian priest, teacher, and author, writes:
“I love the Bible. While I do not find every word of it as inspiring as some of my fellow Christians do, I encounter God in it reliably enough to commit myself on a daily basis to practicing the core teachings of both testaments. When I do this, however, a peculiar thing happens. As I practice what I learn in the Bible, the Bible turns its back on me. Like some parent intent on my getting my own place, the Bible won’t let me setup house in its pages. It gives me a kiss and boots me into the world, promising me that I have everything I need to find God, not only on the page but also in the flesh. Whether I am reading Torah or the Gospels, the written word keeps evicting me to go embody the Word by living in peace and justice with my neighbors on this earth, whatever amount of confrontation, struggle, and surrender that may involve.”
In my first few years as a pastor, on Saturday evenings I could count on becoming physically ill in anticipation of reading the Word of God aloud on Sunday morning. That’s gone, but a vestige remains. I may appear poised, but it’s only because I’ve learned to mask what’s going on inside. I still tremble at the thought that what is read, words set down all those years ago, still have the power to bring people into an experience of the living God. Millions have met Jesus not in the flesh but in the stories, in the words which have a way of jumping off the page. Rooted in history, they are more than history. Jesus is still alive in them, with power to make us weep, rejoice, hope, act.
Word of God … Word of Life. Thanks be to God! Amen.