September 30, 2007

New Clothes: Believing the Bible (Part A)
2 Timothy 3:10-17; Ps. 78:5-8

I didn’t watch the TV show The Waltons all that often when I was younger, but one episode in particular left a lasting impression upon me—its been thirty years now! John Boy had come back to Waltons’ Mountain during the 1930’s and was the publisher of his own newspaper. One week he decided to run an article on Adolph Hitler and the escalating trouble in Germany, and virtually all of the locals lost their cool. Even the pastor of the church condemned John Boy’s decision and called a town gathering to burn whatever German books could be found. As one man began throwing his books into the fire, John Boy rushed forward and begged everyone to stop. “They do this all over Germany,” he said, “and the distance between them and us doesn’t appear to be very great right now.”

Then, after pleading his case, John Boy happened to notice a particular book lying among the others waiting to be burned. He slowly picked it up and quietly commented, “I sure wish there was someone here who could read German.” Hesitantly an older woman made her way to John Boy, took the book and began reading the otherwise unintelligible German words. After a moment, John Boy asked her to read just the first few lines in English. “In the beginning,” she began, “God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The townspeople were stunned as she read, some staring off in bewilderment, some crying, some shaking. In their zeal to burn their German books, the deeply religious folks of Waltons’ Mountain nearly did the unthinkable—burn the Bible.

The Bible. The book that has shaped the lives of people all around the world for hundreds and thousands of years. Peasants have traded food and clothing to obtain it; emperors persecuted their subjects for reading it; power-mongers abused their victims by misinterpreting it; countless individuals, including many of our own Anabaptist ancestors, died for proclaiming it; and people of all colors, shapes and sizes have come to faith by believing it. Yet they almost burned the Bible on Waltons’ Mountain several decades ago.

For most of history the Bible, or in the earliest years those stories, songs and sayings that later came to form the Bible, was read to people who had no written copies of their own. The same holds true today in various underdeveloped or even illiterate cultures—I know of a young man in Africa who walks 2 ? hours one way every Sunday just to hear the Bible being read. With the invention of the printing press, the Bible has become far more accessible for more and more people. It has been translated into over 2,000 languages, and attempts to determine how many copies have actually been printed are educated guesses at best. A common, though no doubt conservative, tally suggests that, between the years of 1816-1992 alone, more than 6 billions copies of the Bible were published. To this day, the Bible continues to be read, with varying degrees of frequency, in mud huts in Africa, thatched dwellings in Asia, haciendas in Latin America, and even world-class universities in Europe and North America. What book has done more to shape the history of western culture, I might ask, than the Bible?

Yet one has a sneaking suspicion that people these days, at least in our culture, would not react with the same spirit of conviction witnessed on Waltons’ Mountain a few decades ago if they—if we—discovered a Bible in the burn pile. The Bible, truth be told, has fallen into a state of considerable neglect, even among many people in the church today. Copies are plentiful, but devout readers are few. Many yawn when the Bible is opened, shrug their shoulders when it is quoted, and snicker when it is actually believed. In such a context as this, the second of our ten core values announces with confidence: “We value the Bible as God’s authoritative Word, study it together, and build our lives on its truth.” But why? Why do we view the Bible as the authoritative center of our individual and congregational lives? These few poetic lines in Psalm 78:5-8 suggest at least the following reasons.

We value the Bible, to begin with, because we believe that the God who stands behind it exercises authority over the entire world. It is clear here in Psalm 78 that God establishes, appoints and commands—he is in control (v. 5)—and the same theme runs throughout all of Scripture. “God is king over the nations,” the Psalmist declares in 47:8, “God sits on his holy throne.” “To whom then will you liken God?” the prophet Isaiah asks, and the challenge goes unanswered (40:18). And in Romans 13:1, the Apostle Paul joins the chorus and points out that all earthly authorities, great and small, exercise their authority only with God’s permission. We value the Bible, then, through association. In the same way that one might cherish a letter from the president or the autograph of a favorite celebrity, we value the Bible because of the God who stands behind it.

We value the Bible, secondly, because we believe that this authoritative God plays an active role within the world. To quote the title of Francis Schaeffer’s popular book from the 70’s, He is There and He is not Silent. In Psalm 78:5 and 7, God speaks—“he commanded our ancestors”—and he acts—“…the works of God.” From the earliest chapters of Genesis through the final stanzas of Revelation, we read again and again of a God who speaks and acts. He speaks and creates the world. He speaks and calls Abraham, instructs Moses, summons Joshua, and rebukes Saul. He speaks and inspires the prophets, criticizes the arrogant nations of the world, and announces hope for all who trust in him. And all the while that he is speaking, he acts and frees Jacob’s family from Egypt. He acts and gives Israel a homeland in Canaan. He acts and sends his wayward people into exile and then drags them back out again. Finally, he takes a deep breath and speaks and acts together in one climactic pronouncement, sending into the world the fullest expression of his Word—Jesus Christ. Were he the God that deists claim to believe in, a god who merely wound up the world like a clock and then left it to fend for itself, the Bible would be of little consequence to us. Were God nothing more than a philosophical proposition or theological abstraction—the “divine principle,” as some people put it—then we would focus our attention somewhere other than here (the Bible). We value the Bible as authoritative, in large measure, because we believe that the God of the Bible speaks and acts.

Thirdly, we value the Bible because we believe that God inspired the community of faith to pass on their accounts of what he said and did to subsequent generations. Notice this dynamic process here in Psalm 78. As God speaks and acts, he instructs his people to teach the next generation so that they will know God’s commandments and remember his wondrous works (vv. 6-7). And we find this same dynamic process at work, once again, throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Preserving, telling and retelling the story play a major role in the life and worship of both Israel and the Church. Again and again, we read of scribes writing down these accounts, prophets and teachers interpreting them, and everyday people reciting them. In Deuteronomy 1-4, Moses rehearses the early works of God so that Israel might draw hope for the road ahead. In Judges 2, the writer retells selected stories so that his audience might learn from their ancestors’ mistakes. In Luke 24, Jesus reviews the Scriptures so that his companions might recognize who he is. And in Colossians 4, the people in Colossae and Laodicea read complimentary letters from Paul in order to make their way through perplexing situations. For us, the Bible is no static document given once and for all by God in some momentary display of his power, as Mormons claim the book of Mormon to be or Muslims the Koran. Instead, the Bible is the inspired record of a lengthy and ongoing conversation between God and his people. This authoritative God speaks and acts, and the community tells and retells the story to one generation and then the next.

Finally, we value the Bible because we believe that God continues to invite people like you and me to join the eternal conversation recorded in the Bible, and when we do, we are changed. Fred Craddock likens the reading of the Bible to a visit to a local deli or café. Imagine, upon entering Juice and Java in Mechanicsburg, that you take a seat beside a table at which an intriguing conversation is going on. You are not a part of that conversation, but you can’t help but overhear some of what is being discussed. And the conversation interests you. Perhaps the participants are discussing ways to develop meaningful relationships, and you are at the moment struggling with your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend. Or maybe they are talking about the hurts and pains of living in a fast-paced and lonely world, and their words strike a chord within your own experience. Whatever the case, you find yourself inching your chair closer and closer to the other table so that you can hear even better. At one point, you inadvertently blurt out a word or two, finding yourself thoroughly caught up in what is taking place. Finally, almost without knowing it, you pull your chair up to the table and join in the conversation. When you do, you recognize your own shortcomings, gain new perspectives, and experience lasting change.

A graphic example of this very thing appears in 2 Kings 22, when King Josiah hears the words of the book of the law read aloud. Interestingly enough, the book of the law, long considered by scholars to be at least the central portion of the book of Deuteronomy, had somehow disappeared from sight (v. 8). When it was discovered and read to Josiah, he tore his clothes, sought the Lord, and shared the book with the entire community. So it is when someone truly listens to the stories of God recorded in this book and enters into the conversation.

That has certainly been my experience, too. I can’t fully explain what happened to me that night back in August, 1971, when I heard Reinnie Barth preach from the book of Judges. I only know that as he preached, the Spirit of God opened my eyes and penetrated my heart. I saw in Israel’s sins my own sins, and I sensed in God’s mercy the possibility that I might be forgiven, too. And a similar scene repeats itself over and over again in my life, though perhaps on a smaller scale. I often find myself confessing, laughing, and even weeping when I slide my chair up to the table and join the conversation recorded in these ancient pages. The Bible is authoritative, I have discovered, not because it is a repository of ancient data and information. The Bible is authoritative, not because the paper on which it is printed is magical or the leather unusually special. The Bible is authoritative because the God who holds heaven and earth in his hands speaks through it in life-changing ways. Without God, the Bible would be just another book.

But it’s not. That might be why the people shuddered on Waltons’ Mountain when they saw a Bible in the burn pile. I’m not sure. But it certainly is why we need to take off our old clothes of indifference toward the Bible, if we are still wearing them, and put on new clothes of study, reflection and devotion. God may speak to us through rivers and mountains. He may inspire us when we listen to symphonies or read good books. But it is through this book, we believe, that God most clearly tells of his great love for humankind. It is through this book that he describes the dreadful problems in the world that he is longing to fix. And it is through this book, first and foremost, that God’s Spirit leads us to Jesus, the Living Word. And when we come and enter the conversation, we are changed. Paul believed the same. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote in Romans 1:16, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”