Sermon: The Word of God Is Living and Active

Church: The Well
Date: March 4, 2007

Please pray with me: Word of all Words, source of all worth knowing, make us attentive to your words. We thank you for making us a people of the book, a people who know that insofar as we live, we live in your story—the story of mercy and forgiveness as well as of judgment and death, both found in the story of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to remember his story, and thereby also to remember our own. In the name of the Word made flesh. Amen.

Today, in our third week on spiritual practices, my subject is Scripture and study. Even though it may seem natural to have someone who likes to study talk about studying, this is a really hard topic to speak about. For starters, like most of the topics in this series, the topic of Scripture is just huge. If studying the Gospel of John took over a year, how long would a series on Scripture as a whole take?! But maybe the bigger problem is how to make this topic interesting. We no longer live in an age of books. Reading has given way to blogging. Books have given way to movies. Studying has given way to watching television shows.

And so we speak of Scripture as a spiritual discipline—something we just have to do. For the most part, reading Scripture is no longer a natural part of our lives, like eating and sleeping and laughing; now it is a task, a chore, a homework assignment, a New Year’s resolution, a topic for a thesis or dissertation, an authority that we consult when we need guidance, a record of laws to tell us how to be different from our neighbors, and perhaps worse of all, a weapon that we use against people—whether as a way to judge others morally, or to justify dividing a church, or simply to explain why “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Scripture is often seen simply as a “dead letter”; it’s something we use. The Bible has become a means toward some other end—whether it’s a compass or a map to guide our lives, a book of laws to tell us how to act, or a rock quarry which we must dig through to find the nuggets of gold that we can use in a research paper or as quotes to tape to our bathroom mirror or hang as ornaments on the wall or as ways of getting rich by writing a book based on virtually nothing (e.g, The Prayer of Jabez).

The point is, once we make Scripture a means toward some other end, it becomes really easy for us to find other ways to reach that end besides reading Scripture. And this is no less the case in churches than anywhere else. At seeker-friendly mega-churches, which I have attended in the past, the goal of the sermon is to keep people coming back, to keep them interested. When that is the goal, the Bible is no longer necessary. Not surprisingly, the sermons almost never mentioned the Bible. The preacher might throw in a verse here or there for good measure, but otherwise, the Bible was unnecessary. In the church where I grew up, the preachers loved to speak of the Bible as our compass in life, as our map to guide us through the difficulties in this world. And even though the Bible was talked about all the time, it is my conviction that viewing Scripture in these terms is the surest and quickest way of making Scripture obsolete.

What do I mean by this? To demonstrate what I mean, I’d like to bring to our attention some things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while he was in prison under the Nazis, shortly before his execution. Near the end of his life, Bonhoeffer became increasingly concerned about the place of God in the modern world. God, he said, is only spoken of when there is a question which our own human resources cannot answer. These are the “ultimate questions.” God “becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts.” Bonhoeffer goes on to say one of the most profound things I have ever read, and when I first read it in 2004, it changed my life. He writes:
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end . . . They bring [God] on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure . . . Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous . . . It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. . . . God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.
Now what does this passage have to do with the Bible? Quite a bit, I think. When Scripture is treated simply as the Book of Answers or as our Spiritual Compass, the Bible simply becomes the solution for what we cannot solve ourselves. We turn to prayer only when we cannot fix the situation on our own. Before we know it, Scripture becomes superfluous. The Bible becomes the book on the boundaries, rather than the story that shapes the center of our very life.

So how should we approach the Bible? Maybe it would be helpful to see how we shouldn’t approach it. Maybe the best example of the wrong view of the Bible is from the old Princeton Seminary theologian, Charles Hodge:
The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. . . . The duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him. These facts are all in the Bible.
I held this kind of view for most of my early life. Todd spoke several weeks ago about scouring the Bible as a high-schooler for nuggets of truth. I was the same way. The Bible was my storehouse of truth; it was the rock quarry full of facts just waiting to be mined. This view was and still is very appealing to someone like me who is all too prone to turning the Bible into material for a systematic theology. This is the temptation of all rationalism: to become the master of the Bible. We seek to make Scripture serve our own particular ends—which might mean using the Bible to refute some philosophy or scientific theory or theology which we happen to dislike. And to borrow from St. Paul, if this is sin, then I am the greatest of sinners!

The view of the Bible as a storehouse of facts quickly turns the Bible into a dead letter. The Bible becomes an object for study, an object that we can pick through to find what we want—a verse to make us happy, a verse to comfort us, a verse to use against our Mormon classmate or Muslim neighbor. When the Bible becomes the object, we become the subject. We are active and the Bible is passive; it is dead. Along these lines, one contemporary writer calls our age the “age of cafeteria religion,” in which we pick and choose what we want. Cafeteria religion says, “I determine what God is!” We are active, while God and Scripture become the passive objects of our rational thought. This isn’t just a “dead letter”; it’s a dead faith.

Scripture itself shows us a very different understanding of God’s Word. There are two passages I want to look at more closely: the first is obvious, while the second is not so obvious. First, let’s look at Hebrews 4:12:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
This passage makes it clear that God’s Word is the subject, and we in fact are its object. We do not pierce through Scripture; Scripture pierces through us. We do not judge God; God judges us. Scripture is not a dead letter, but a living and active one. It is not a storehouse of facts, but rather a double-edged sword.

But how can a book full of ancient texts be a sword that pierces us, judges us, and changes us? This is an important question. And there are many ways to make some major mistakes here. Traditionally, Christians have been accustomed to think there is something special about the words themselves. When I was young, my parents quoted to me Revelation 22:18-19:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
When I heard this as a kid, I was scared out of my mind! It used to take me five minutes just to copy down one verse, because I would check it over and over and over to make sure there wasn’t a single letter or punctuation mark in the wrong place. I didn’t want to lose my salvation! This was serious business. Consequently, the words themselves took on a kind of magical power in my mind. This was only reinforced by doctrines like the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, which invested the words with a mystical divine status. The notion of inspiration began to arouse images in my mind of Paul dictating what he heard God telling him. In the end, the emphasis upon the divine nature of the words in the Bible led me, ironically, to view the Bible as an object—albeit a divinely written object. The focus on the words of Scripture has led evangelicals to identify the words on the page with the “word of God.” While this isn’t entirely incorrect, this is also where everything begins to go astray.

If our study of John only teaches us one thing, I hope it is this: the Word of God is Jesus Christ. He is the Word that was spoken in the beginning when the worlds were created. He is the Word made flesh. So when Hebrews speaks of the “word of God” as living and active, we should first of all think of Jesus Christ, the Word of God who took on our human nature. But that doesn’t mean we cannot speak of Scripture as the Word of God as well. We just cannot forget that Scripture is the Word of God to us only because it witnesses to Jesus Christ who is the Word of God for us. He is the Word who spoke the world into existence, who speaks to us through the gospel, and who, according to Hebrews, “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). Scripture is thus a living document only because the Holy Spirit works through these words. It is the Spirit of Christ who judges our hearts, who divides soul from spirit, who penetrates our lives. In other words, the Word has authority because of the activity of the Spirit.

Hebrews 4 is an important passage, but it’s only half the picture. According to Hebrews, the Word of God is a sword that divides and pierces, but what about the other side? Does the Word also heal? If the Word of God is a No, is it also a Yes? To complete our understanding of Scripture, let us turn to Ezekiel 37:1-10:
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
This is a beautiful and profound passage. Instead of being a Word that divides, the Word here is one that unites. In the midst of death, this Word brings life. As in Hebrews, the Word of God is truly alive and active. The Word of God is the subject. We are its objects. We are the ones who are dead; the Word of God makes us alive. In other words, the Word of God rejects cafeteria religion. Those who hear and respond to this Word by faith realize that it is not we who determine God; rather, God determines who we are.

What is interesting about this passage is that God tells the prophet to speak, even though God is clearly capable of speaking a word that would give life. And yet God chooses to work through the words of the prophet. The prophet is called to bear witness to God by speaking the Word of God to the dry bones. And yet it is not the words which give life, but the God who accompanies these words. It is God alone who gives life, and it is only by God’s grace that human words—including this Bible, including the preaching of the Word—bear witness to this life-giving God. In the passage, this becomes clear when the bodies are all there, but there is no life in them. The prophet then prophesies again, this time calling upon the breath of God to fill the bodies with life. But in Hebrew, the word for breath is the same as the word for spirit. Thus, it is the Spirit of God who gives life to these bodies, just as in Genesis, it is the spirit or breath of God which gives life to Adam.

If Scripture is a word which penetrates our hearts and brings us the gospel of life, then it cannot simply be a storehouse of facts or a map to show us where to go in life. No, it is so much more than this. The Bible is a story. Not only that: it is our story. And it is our story because it is the story in which we discover life. It is the story which tells us of the God who graciously brought the world into being through the spoken word. It is the story which tells us of how we have turned away from God, how we try to live apart from God’s life-giving Word, how we have fallen into chaos, despair, and death. It is the story which tells us of how God’s life-giving Word became flesh in order that we might no longer be a valley of dry bones, but a community of believers who gather together in thanks and praise. It is the story which promises us “peace, peace, to the far and the near” (Isa. 57:19), and in which we hear that Jesus Christ “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). It is the story which tells us of our death in Christ and our new life in his resurrection. It is the story which tells us that “one has died for all, and therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14), that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), that “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19-20), and that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is the story which tells us that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). It is the story which tells us that “God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). It is the story, finally, in which Jesus says to us, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). From beginning to end, the story of the Bible is our story. We discover ourselves as we discover the God who speaks to us through these words. Through Scripture, we hear the life-giving Word. In these stories, we encounter the living God, and we are given new life.

What then does it mean to study such a Word? Clearly, it cannot mean approaching this text like a scientist approaches a lab specimen or as an archaeologist approaches the skeleton of some prehistoric animal or as a miner approaches a pit of rock. These are all metaphors which view us as the subjects and the Bible as the object. We have to approach Scripture in a very different way, and no one describes it better than Martin Luther:
It is most certain that the Holy Scriptures cannot be fathomed by study and scholarship alone. Therefore, your first duty in approaching the Bible is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect: That if it pleases God to accomplish something through you for his own glory, and not for your own glory nor that of any other man, that of his grace he grant you a true understanding of his words.

The reason for this is that no master of the divine word exists, except the author of these words, as Christ himself says, “They shall all be taught of God” (Jn. 6:45). Therefore, you on your own part must stand in complete despair of your own industry and scholarship, and rely solely and utterly on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Believe me, I know the truth of this in my own life.
Luther does mean that scholarship and study are not important. Luther himself was an academic theologian, and his collected writings number well over 50 volumes of material. So clearly scholarship is important. But we must, according to Luther, approach the Bible in the posture of prayer. Why is that? Because when we pray, we acknowledge God as the subject, as the one who acts. We approach God as one who speaks, who creates, who saves and redeems. The one who studies Scripture must always remember that we depend entirely upon the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our dead bones. We must be taught of God. We must be made new by God. And most importantly, we must pray.

When we approach this text, we must remember that this is our story. The Bible does not simply speak about God; it also speaks about us. And it speaks about us as those who rely solely and utterly upon the triune God for our very life. The story of Scripture is a living story: it pierces our inner being and proclaims the wonders of God’s love. The story of Scripture is the story in which we find ourselves. Just to make clear: the Bible is not a story in which we insert ourselves; it is not a story which we may join if we want. It is not as if the Bible speaks about some group of people that doesn’t include us at one point and then does include us later. No, when we encounter the Word of God in Scripture, we discover that we were part of this story from the very beginning. Even without our knowing it, this story is our story. We can never say that this book is about so and so, but it has nothing to do with me. On the contrary, God speaks to each person directly and says, “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In the final analysis, the story of Christ is our story. In the incarnation, God made all of our stories God’s own, and consequently, God’s story became ours. Indeed, our life is hidden with Christ in God. His life is our life, even when can’t recognize it. To paraphrase Luther, when we are feeling our best, when we think we are the most moral and good people we can be, the gospel tells us that we are utterly sinful and there is no one righteous, not even one; and when we are feeling our worst, when we think we are the most sinful and wretched people on earth, the gospel tells us that we are truly righteous, that we are new creations, that we are justified by faith and have peace with God. In other words, Scripture shows us who we really are, even when everything in our life seems to tell us otherwise.

I wish to close with the words of author and poet Madeleine L’Engle, the author of children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction. She writes:
So what do I believe about Scripture? I believe that it is true. What is true is alive and capable of movement and growth. Scripture is full of paradox and contradiction, but it is true, and if we fallible human creatures look regularly and humbly at the great pages and people of Scripture, if we are willing to accept truth rather than rigidly infallible statements, we will be given life, and life more abundantly.
The question for us is: Do we believe Scripture is true? I don’t mean true in the scientific way, as if truth can be determined in a laboratory. I don’t mean truth the way Hodge might define it, as a fact that can be organized and contained, systematized and sorted out by our human reason. I don’t mean truth the way I grew up thinking about it. Too often we think that if admit the humanity of the Bible we somehow undermine its truthfulness. But if God lived and died in the very human flesh of Jesus, then why can’t God speak through the very human words of the Bible? We need to get beyond issues like infallibility and pursue truth. And the truth is Jesus Christ. As Jesus declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The Bible is not the truth and the life; Jesus Christ is. We need to remember that we will not find life in facts or “rigidly infallible statements.” These are good for arguments and divisions, but if we desire peace and unity and a life of abundance, we must seek these in the one who is our peace, our unity, and our life. We do not find them in a fact, but only in a person—a person who lived and died and rose again for us and for our salvation.

What are some ways that we as a community can live as the people of this story? How can we approach the Bible not as a storehouse of facts but as the story of our lives as lives that are hidden with Christ? Here’s one idea. A professor and family friend spoke at my youth group back when I was in high school about reading the Bible with others. He told us to keep it simple. Get together with a friend or even someone you don’t know that well. Commit to meeting once a week. Together, pick a place in the Bible to start reading, whether it’s Genesis or Matthew or somewhere else. During that week, read a chapter a day or five chapters—whatever you are comfortable with. Mark passages you find interesting and talk about them. Nothing fancy or long-winded. Just talk about what you read, like you would in reading any book. And then just keep doing that, week after week. Challenge each other and be disciplined about it. This isn’t the only idea; it’s probably not even the best one. But it’s at least something.

The point of this is threefold: First, Scripture belongs in the community, so whatever you do, make sure you do it with others. The books of the Bible were meant to be read aloud. The Old Testament books were read in the synagogue, and the letters of the New Testament were read in the churches. When I was growing up, my parents read a part of the Bible every night for at least the first ten years of my life. I learned how to read by following my Dad’s fingers across the page of the Bible. Pretty soon I was reading. The stories became my own. Here at The Well, let us seek to make the story of Scripture our own.

Second, Scripture is not about searching for facts or trivia. The Bible is a story, and it should be read like one. Allow yourself to be absorbed in the details. Think about the themes and motifs. Notice the recurring metaphors and images in the text. The Bible is exciting!

Third, and most importantly, pray. We must approach the text in prayer, asking God to encounter us in these words. We must read the text in the posture of prayer, allowing God to penetrate our hearts, to strike us where we are vulnerable, but also allowing God’s Word to breathe life into us when it seems as if we are nothing but dry bones. And, finally, we must leave the text in prayer, asking God to transform us as we seek to embody the story in our daily lives.

In closing, then, let us pray: Gracious triune God, we praise you and thank you for your Word of life that is living and active. Send your Holy Spirit to help us be faithful and attentive readers of your Holy Word. Fill us with the joy of the Spirit so that our cup runs over and others will see our joy and discover that they too are part of this glorious story of salvation. In the name of the Spirit who brings us new life. Amen.

Comments

A wonderful sermon, as always.
Perhaps we should start that kind of bible study here at PTS. I know we look at our bibles a lot here, so it sounds redundant, but there's something for reading the Bible when there's NOT a paper due. I'd be up for Hebrews. ;-)
VERY nice. Interesting that you blogged a sermon on Bible study the same week I blogged an appreciation of my adult Bible study class over at http://levellers.wordpress.com/

We made different, but not incompatible points, I think, David.
WTM said…
Very well done. How long was it (time)?

I'm curious about the Hodge quote. Where did you get it? I didn't know you had a copy of his Systematic Theology...
JP Manzi said…
Wow, good stuff Dave, I'm sorry I missed it but I look forward to hearing it, eventually, when its geton the web-site.
Kevin S. said…
Dave, very good sermon. Sorry I missed you again. At least I got to read it just now on your blog. You really presented the scripture in such a way that they come alive. Very encouraging.
T.L. Graham said…
Great stuff David... did you get any lash back from the Jabez knock? I couldn't tell if people were laughing or shocked. I was laughing.
Thanks David. A good word. Much appreciated.