First Christian Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Sunday, October 17th, 2010
John 1:1, 1:14
II Timothy 3:14-4:5
My time on the chancel began with me introducing myself formally to the congregation. The text that follows is my basic text as written for the sermon (it begins as a continuation from my introduction); however, there was a fair amount of improvisation based on the text.
As we begin, I’d like to show you a few books. The books that I’m going to show you are not the word of God.
The first book is the Holy Qur’an. It was authored in the 7th century CE by the prophet Mohammed, who claimed that it had been revealed to him by the angel Gabriel (yes, the same one who the Christmas carols say visited the Virgin Mary). But… it’s not the word of God.
The second book is the Book of Mormon. It was authored in the 19th century by Joseph Smith, who also claimed to have been visited by an angel – in his case, the angel Moroni, who did not reveal the words to Joseph Smith, but rather led him to a set of golden tablets buried in western New York. But… it’s also not the word of God.
The third book is the Chalice Hymnal. Now, despite the beliefs of my choir back home and possibly the choir here, this is most DECIDEDLY not the word of God.
And then there’s this fourth book. I’m sure some of you are slightly confused. You see, I said that I was going to show you a few books that are not the word of God, and yet here I am, holding a Bible in my hand. Let that sink in for a moment.
Now, I imagine that at this very moment, some of you are forming a plan in your heads to fetch the pitchforks and torches and forcefully eject me from North Carolina. But before you do so, allow me to explain…
You see, the Bible might not be THE word of God, but it is certainly a collection of DIVINELY INSPIRED words of God. Today’s New Testament reading, from the second letter to the disciple Timothy, says that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
So, if Scripture is so useful for so many things, then why am I being so insistent that the Bible is not THE word of God? Well, there’s a couple reasons.
The first reason is this: there are a great many members of the Church – not this church in particular, but the Church as a worldwide whole – who will take the Bible and hold it in far too great reverence. Yes, we should take the Bible to be exactly what it is called in Second Timothy – God-breathed and highly useful – but we should not worship it. There are far too many Christians in today’s world who are much too willing to exalt words on a page over the divine being of God, and in that, we run into the First Commandment.
“You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol.”
To be sure, the many, many individuals responsible for giving us our modern Bible were in no way trying to make an idol. Their intent was not to create a false god that would be worshiped in the place of the god known as Yahweh, I Am, Jehovah. However, when Christians find themselves so beholden to the text of the Scripture rather than joyfully worshiping in the presence of God, they have indeed placed the Bible before God.
This is not to say that those Christians who place the Bible before God are bad people. I have certainly done it myself on more than one occasion, using the words of God for my own selfish purposes rather than allowing God to speak through me. In fact, I would be surprised if there’s a single individual out there who considers him or herself a pastor or Biblical scholar who HASN’T done this very thing.
It is in this way that we struggle with God. And indeed, struggling with God is a distinct theme throughout this book we call the Bible. In today’s Old Testament reading, from Genesis 32, we see Jacob wrestling through the night with an unidentified man. Most Biblical scholars believe that the unidentified man here was some representation of God – whether the angel of the Lord, a pre-incarnate appearance of the Messiah, or the very being of Yahweh. As the sun rises, the man asks Jacob to let him go, but Jacob refuses to do so until he receives a blessing – and the man complies.
Is this why we struggle with God? Do we have a desire to be blessed? Is our desire to be blessed by God so great that we would use his words in ways that they may or may not have been intended, in the hopes that we will please God and thus receive his blessing?
In the movie Saved!, Mandy Moore plays a highly devout (and markedly pretentions) young Christian woman named Hilary Faye, attending a Christian high school in suburban Maryland (and for those of you who have seen the movie, substitute suburban Maryland for urban Phoenix and you’ve got my high school experience). She develops a habit of misusing the Scripture in various ways, whether it is to try to explain to her paraplegic brother why it is God’s will that he should be that way, or whether it is to attempt to proselytize to the school’s “bad girl”, or whether it is to try to attract the eye of the principal’s son. At one point, she throws a Bible at her best friend – Mary – in an attempt to get her to “walk the straight and narrow”.
“This is not a weapon,” Mary tells her after being struck by the Bible. And indeed, it is not. The Bible is not a weapon – although too often it is used as one. The Bible is not a god – although too often, it is revered as one. And as I said at the beginning, the Bible is not the Word of God.
Ah, yes. That again. So, if the Bible is not the Word of God, then what is?
Well, let’s go back to Second Timothy. We were told that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful, which means there’s a good bet that the Bible will tell us what the word of God is. Where exactly does it tell us? Well, if there’s a Bible within arm’s reach, I’d like you to take it and open it up to the first page of the Gospel of John.
John chapter 1, verse 1, says, “In the beginning was THE WORD, and THE WORD was with God, and THE WORD was God.” Okay, so there’s the beginning of an explanation. The Word was God. But in what sense?
Skip down to verse 14. “And THE WORD became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Okay. So the Word was God. The Word became flesh and lived among us. The Word was as a father’s only son.
It sounds to me like the Word of God is Jesus Christ.
When we use the words the wrong way, we struggle with the Word. We sin against the Word. But the Word has a long and distinct history of forgiving us for our struggle and our sin.
As the young disciple Timothy is exhorted later in the New Testament reading, “proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Take your words of God, the Bible – and yes, occasionally the Chalice Hymnal – and go into the world. Go to the people who use the Bible as a weapon, go to the people who revere the Bible as a false idol, and put the words of God before them – and show to them the Word of God.