Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How is the Bible the Word of God? - Kurt Nelson

 Rollins Chapel, Sunday, January 23, 2011                                                                   
"How is the Bible the Word of God?"
Genesis 1: 1-5, John 1: 1-3
It’s a frequent occurrence in many Christian churches,
including my own
that at the close of a scripture reading,
the reader will say,
“The word of the Lord”
“The word of God for the people of God.”
And if you’re at all like me,
you might have wondered what exactly they are referring to.
Is the Word of God
 this disposable sheet with scripture and liturgy and announcements on it?
Or is it the whole book –
sometimes a giant ornate thing which sits ominously by the altar,
or sometimes a smaller, neater prop,
flapping energetically in the preacher’s hand?
Is it just the portion we heard aloud?
And, if so, what if the reader didn’t do a very good job,
stumbling over strange biblical names,
or far off places?
“The Word of God”
is a phrase often invoked,
but rarely explored, it would seem.
At least in the circles in which I spend much of my time.

My own relationship with the bible has never been simple.
A bit like a strained sibling relationship.
Always there,
always meaningful,
but not always easy, or joyful.
A relationship of tension,
but productive tension in the end, I think.
And it is thus that I ponder how the Bible is the Word of God,
I ponder the complicates ways,
that this amazing and troubling scripture,
has been a constant partner for argument,
and has dramatically shaped my vision,
and my relationship,
with the God of Love.

As I pondered  especially the Word of God these weeks,
I will admit with some chagrin,
that I became fixated on a memory of the 2008 republican presidential primary.
More specifically,
the so-called Youtube debate,
where questions came not from journalists,
but from common people,
through the magic of the internet.
About 2/3rds of the way through
a young, intense man from Dallas Texas,
named "calciumboy" came on the screen
and said,
"The answer to this question will tell me everything I need to know."
And holding up his bible to his webcam, he says,
"Do you believe every word of this book?"
It was a hostile question.

And I will admit,
that I was a little conflicted.
Because they hadn't yet spoken about Iraq,
or the environment,
or education.
And I thought it might be appropriate to have some debate on those subjects.
But I was really interested in how they’d respond
and I really did enjoy watching these slick, successful politicians,
stumble over their relationship to the Bible.
Frequently invoking the phrase,
"The Bible is the Word of God"
as if that clarified anything.

I can attest to the fact that it's quite hard,
to offer compelling response to the suggestion,
that either you believe every word, or you don't believe.
Let alone, I would imagine,
 to do so while your political life hangs in the balance.

And so we've come on the one hand,
to closely associate the notion of the Word of God,
with that sort of "all or nothing" simplistic approach.
As an easy and simple litmus test
of true Christian Faith.
And on the other hand,
the phrase “Word of God”
can simply be a phrase spoken together,
but rarely considered,
and often stripped of any meaning at all.

And we live in this space,
with these two poles,
I think pushing farther and farther apart,
as it becomes harder and harder to explore what the Word of God might mean.
But I’ll try today to give this notion of the Word of God its serious due,
without slipping into simplistic,
black and white,
and unfeasible notions of the all or nothing scripture,
or giving up on the meaning of that phrase altogether.
Because as we can see from our readings today,
the idea of the “Word of God”
is a tremendously important one.

God’s word spoke the universe into existence in Genesis 1,
and then declared it good.
And God word, God’s logos,
was there from the beginning in John’s Gospel,
and all things came into being through it,
and then it became incarnate in a person.

God’s word is no simple idea.
It is a lively, creative, and important Word.
There from the beginning,
and here with us now.
But we must wonder together,

Too often, I think,
in our searching for concrete answers,
we confuse the Word of God,
with the words of God.
The Word of God is a living, creative thing,
and the words of God would be written, static, and limited.
Inspired though it may be,
I don’t think we’re meant to look on the bible as the words of God,
spoken once and for all.
For the Word of God is too big to be constrained by a book,
even one as holy, and as important as this bible.
For indeed the Word of God became incarnate in the person of Jesus,
not in the codex of Scripture.
Scripture is a testament to that person,
to that Word,
and to God’s work throughout all of history.
But that’s not the same as being the words of God.
And yet we still speak that phrase,
and that image of Bible as Word still plays large on our collective imagination.
And that is,
I think,
because when we say things like
“the Word of God for the people of God”
it is an aspiration.
It is, almost, a prayer.
Scripture becomes the word of God,
When read, and explored,
and argued, and illuminated.
Especially together.
And thus we gather together to worship.
To sing, and pray,
and preach, and interpret,
 and hear together the word of God in our midst.
Scripture becomes the Word of God,
when it points us to the person of Christ,
to the Love of God,
to the Good News to the poor,
and the call to love our neighbors and enemies.

However, especially for those looking to scripture as the literal words of God,
all of this might seem terribly in-concrete.
Couldn’t, we might wonder, we simply interpret what we wanted?
And who are we to do so?
Couldn’t we use scripture to oppress?
Or do what is wrong or unpleasing in the eyes of God?

And the answer is, of course, yes.
We have done such things,
we do do such things and
and we likely will do such things again.
We do them in the name of liberalism and conservatism and literalism.
We do them while earnestly seeking to do right,
and we occasionally do them willfully,
to support a known and particular agenda.
We are, after all, sinners.
But instead of denying this reality,
and hiding behind the idea that scripture is an all or nothing word for word, proposition,
I think we are instead called to be active, engaged readers,
seeking always the good news,
of God’s redeeming word.
William Sloane Coffin reminds us,
that Jesus spoke in parables,
to place the emphasis not on the teller,
but on the hearer.
And I think all of scripture is much the same.
Asking much of us,
as we read, and work, and interpret together.
When we put our faith in the bible,
it is a misplaced faith.
For our faith is in the God of the Bible,
and the God of Jesus Christ.

And we must stick to those essential theological,
and ethical truths,
that we know and believe,
and try to live out.
Which we read from the text,
and in turn read always into the text as well.

What’s important about scripture,
about the word,
is not that we be able to defend
or make meaning every single word,
but that it point us to these larger things:
That we are not alone in the world.
That we are loved, and forgiven.
That grace and love are stronger than sin and evil.
And that, even so, we tend to mess up,
even when it comes to the important things. 
And finally that we are a part of God’s story of redemption,
which is not yet finished.

We have faith that these things are real.
Indeed that they are more real than those things we can touch and see.
But they are not concrete,
in the way that, say, concrete is concrete.
Or perhaps, the way written words are concrete.

Scripture becomes for us the Word of God,
through, we say, the Holy Spirit,
when it points us to those things,
which are so much larger, and bigger and more complicated,
than even scripture itself.
Scripture becomes for us the word of God,
when it opens us to mystery.
When it challenges us to live better,
and to love more deeply.
And it does happen.

And so as we gather for worship,
or study,
let us pray and hope together,
the Scripture might become for us the Word of God.
Upholding us,
challenging us,
and drawing us in to God’s great story.                                             Amen.

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