Sunday, 23 October 2011

The word of God is not easily ignored

Preacher: Veronica

Readings: Jeremiah 36:1-32 John 10:31-38

It’s a strange and almost comic story we just heard from Jeremiah. I like it particularly because as a writer myself, I see it as a story of the most drastic editing in history, followed by the writer’s revenge on the editor. But my reason for sharing it today is different. It’s that I think it links interestingly with what Jesus says in the other story we heard from John 10: ‘the scripture cannot be annulled’.

What did Jesus mean? Fundamentalists might say that it means the Bible is infallible, that it contains factually accurate history, and that its prophecies are literally being fulfilled for today which is, of course, the last days - it always is the last days for people who devote their energy to working out when the last days are.

But readers or hearers of the scriptures in Jesus’ day would not necessarily have thought of them that way. At this time the canon of scripture was still fluid. The final list of which books were authoritative was probably not fixed till the start of the rabbinic period, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. So opinions would vary about which scriptures were valid - and even then, this would not have been thought of in terms of whether you could prove who wrote them, or how historically accurate they were. Rather, scriptures were evaluated in terms of how useful they were in directing everyday living and worship.

Actually, to be honest, Jesus is quoting and using scripture here in a way which would certainly not be recognized as valid by modern scholars. He quotes Psalm 82:6:

I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”

In the context of the original psalm, God appears to be speaking to the ‘divine council’. This is a concept we also meet at the beginning of Job when ‘the heavenly beings’ come to present themselves before the Lord. Clearly this is a more ancient form of Jewish theology in which lesser gods, perhaps the gods of other nations, are subservient to the chief God, Yahweh. But Jesus takes this Scripture and uses it to talk about human beings, affirming the divine status of women and men made in God’s image. So actually he’s being very free and easy with Scripture, in a way reminiscent of other rabbis of the time.

When he declares that ‘scripture cannot be annulled’ (or ‘cannot be broken’), then, Jesus is not saying then that every scripture must be interpreted literally or even that every prophecy has a specific time in history for ‘coming true’. Rather, I think he’s saying that no part of scripture can be dismissed or discarded and that every scripture can be used to interpret the relationship between God and humans, and between us and others, at every time in history. In a sense he’s saying something similar to the modest claim of Scripture’s ‘usefulness’, made by Timothy about Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16 :

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’

Scripture, then, does not have a ‘use by‘ date or a single use code. It is perennially relevant and will speak again and again to every new generation, though each generation may have to do some new interpreting. But I think there is a second sense in which Jesus means something like ‘scripture cannot be deleted’. To return to the story from Jeremiah, if God wants to say something to God’s people, a penknife and brazier job is not going to silence that message. Despite the king’s drastic editing, Jeremiah is able to reproduce word for word what God has said to him, and even add some more. And this is what I call the writer’s revenge.

Have you ever laboriously written a document on your computer and then found that with one misstroke of keys you deleted the whole thing? I certainly have. But I have found that if I started writing again immediately, it was remarkable how much of the original I could remember, sometimes word for word. I could recreate my writing without too much trouble - although I’ve never deleted a really long document or a whole book, which might be harder. And I don’t think this ability is exclusive to writers like myself.

How does this happen? It’s something about the ideas existing not just on the page or screen but in our own minds and hearts - so that the same mind and heart which produced the first version can reproduce the gist of it in the second version. It’s notable at the beginning of the Jeremiah story that there seems to be a time gap between Jeremiah hearing the word of God and writing it down with the help of Baruch. He is told to write down everything God said to him in the reigns of Josiah and Jehoiakim - a long period of oral testimony before he is instructed to write. The primary source, if you like, is the word which arises in Jeremiah’s consciousness, and the written form is secondary.

Of course if you believe that all of Scripture is directly dictated by God, so that the writer is in effect doing automatic writing, it’s simple - God just dictates the whole lot again. But this is not my theory of how Scripture came to be, and I don’t think it’s even something Scripture claims for itself. When 2 Timothy 3 says all Scripture is inspired by God, the literal translation is ‘All Scripture has the breath of God’. I think that’s wonderful - it suggests that Scripture is created by human beings, using their own insight and imagination and mental powers, but under the inspiration of God.

If the primary source of Scripture is the mind and heart of the writer, rather than the written text, then it is a lot harder to erase, because as an old song says about memories, ‘they can’t take that away from me’. Jeremiah himself describes the word of God as being like a fire in his bones (this is Jeremiah 20:8-9):

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

This speaks to me of God’s communication to humanity being a matter of passion - Jeremiah has to speak it out because he is passionate about what God is saying. And that of course is the mark of really good writing: a passion to say what you want to say. Could we also extrapolate from that and say Scripture is the product of God’s passion to communicate with God’s children? I think there is a case for this. Take Isaiah 42:13-14:

The Lord goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant (42:.13--14)

In Luke’s Gospel, Luke has a habit of pairing a parable with a male image of God, with another with a female image of God. Here Isaiah is doing something similar, pairing the image of God as a soldier with God as a woman giving birth. We Mennonites may have trouble thinking of God as soldier; but this is not someone controlling a drone bomber from a remote computer desk, it’s a man going into battle with passion for his cause, crying out his battle cry, perhaps fighting injustice and oppression. And in case that’s too destructive an image of God, it’s immediately balanced with image of a woman giving birth - crying out in pain, but also panting to deliver her long awaited baby.

These are images of God being passionate about letting people know what God feels about them, and what plans God has for them - a passion to communicate, which cannot easily be destroyed. And the word God speaks is meant to make us long with a passion for the same things God longs for: justice, peace and the wellbeing of the whole world. Then the word from God will inhabit our hearts, souls, minds and lives and will bear fruit.

‘Bearing fruit’ suggests a third aspect of Jesus’s saying: that the word of God is never spoken in vain. Which leads us to Isaiah again, in ch 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it

In other words, prophecy is not given to confirm speculation about the future; it is given to accomplish change in the present. When Scripture is engraved on our hearts, it begins to effect real change in the world. Paul describes this process to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 3:

...You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts... for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life..

When the word is written on our hearts in this way, then we can become what James calls ‘doers of the word, not just hearers’.

So to recap: I think there are three things Jesus is implying here:

1. No part of scripture ever becomes redundant; it will always have new applications for a new situation.

2. Scripture, as the product of God’s passion for humanity, cannot be destroyed or blotted out so long as it lives in our hearts and lives.

3. The word of God, once spoken, will accomplish the thing it has been spoken to achieve.

All this brings the Scriptures off the page and into real life. It allows Jesus, in the story from John, to use a psalm verse rather freely to speak about his own unity with the Father. And it also allows us, following in his steps, to achieve the same divine status, as we are gradually conformed into the image of Christ. One of the best ways of conforming us into that image is for us to encounter Jesus in all of scripture, as Anabaptists have been doing for five centuries.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Ps 119 – the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us

Preacher: Sue

One of the things I like about poetry is its capacity to say a lot in a short space, in just a few words.  And so I rarely see the point of long poems…

So you can probably imagine that my heart sank at the idea of preaching on Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it.

But it’s not just the length of Ps 119 that made my heart sink.  For the English reader or listener, Ps 119 is kind of shapeless.  It rambles around meditatively – and repetitively.  There is a clear focus to all the reflections – but no narrative thread or logical progression.

But, while Ps 119 may seem shapeless in English, in the original Hebrew it has a very clear formal shape.  It’s an acrostic, in 22 chunks (or stanzas), one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each chunk consists of 8 sentences, each beginning with the same letter of the alphabet.  So for instance the first 8 sentences all start with the Hebrew letter aleph and the next eight with beth and so on. 

A British Catholic, Ronald Knox, translated Psalm 119 into English using the same pattern.  We’ll hear one letter’s worth of his translation, after we hear the NRSV translation of the same verses, 9 to 16, just to get a feel of how this works:

9 How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments.
11 I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.
13 With my lips I declare all the ordinances of your mouth.
14 I delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.

A number of commentators see the first verse of our reading, verse 9, as the key to the psalm, that is the question “How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word” or “By keeping to your word.”  The whole psalm, then, is an answer to the question of how a young person can learn to be faithful to God.  The heart of the answer is a deep commitment to and love for God’s word. 

This answer holds true for any faithful Israelite, not just for the psalmist, and for all of us who ask the question, “How can we keep our way pure?”  Walter Brueggemann talks about Israel as a community of joyful obedience.  In the fragility and vulnerability that followed Israel’s return from exile (when the psalms were probably being edited into their final shape), this community needed identity and comfort.  It found that in its relationship with Yahweh and its commitment to living within the tradition and the story. 

Brueggemann says that Israel’s horizon is defined by the Torah, that they accept Yahweh as the “horizon of life”.  Imagine being on a hill top or in a wide valley – or a 13th floor flat and looking into the distance.  In that word horizon there’s openness and the reassurance of knowing that wherever Israel looks, she is still looking at the world of Yahweh – but there’s also a sense of an edge, a boundary to contain us and protect us.

Well, that was all by way of introduction.  In thinking about how to preach on Psalm 119 I decided to focus on two main questions, what scripture is to the psalmist and how he experiences scripture. 

[interactive activity]

So, to pull some of that together, we noticed a good number of different ways the psalmist refers to the scripture.  Many are connected with direction – in both senses of the word.  God’s word is directive, giving instruction and commandment, and it points out a path, a direction, a pattern of life for the faithful. 

In our Western, 21st century culture, commandment and direction may not sound very welcome.  Yet if we move to our second question, how does the psalmist experience scripture, I’m struck by the joy and delight and sense of freedom in God’s word. 

Let’s take one example, verse 96: “I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad.” 

The language and sentiment of “I have seen a limit to all perfection” remind me of Ecclesiastes,  In Ecclesiastes nothing makes sense and choosing God and God’s commandments is an expression of faithfulness in spite of everything not because of the rewards.  By contrast with Ecclesiastes, Psalm 119’s overall mood is positive and confident.  Brueggemannn describes it as a psalm of orientation.  There are some tastes of bewilderment and pain – “81 My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word. 82 My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, "When will you comfort me? 83 For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes. 84 How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?”  But it’s as if the psalmist has had brushes with the world of Ecclesiastes - . “I have seen a limit to all perfection” – and then found himself rescued by God’s word – “but your commandment is exceedingly broad.”  The psalmist is intent on keeping God’s commandment but for him this is not narrow and limiting.  It puts him on a broad open path in pleasant places.  Indeed verse 45 of Psalm 119 captures just this sentiment: “I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts.

Veronica’s headline for this sermon on Psalm 119 was “the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us”.  And this psalm certainly sets out plenty of benefits of the Bible.  Happiness or blessedness go hand in hand with keeping God’s commandments.  Obviously that’s only one side of the story – bad things DO happen to good people – and in Brueggemann’s terms this psalm is part of the bible’s core testimony about Yahweh and must be taken alongside the bible’s voices of counter-testimony.  But there are many other benefits which would hold true even in times of trial.  God’s word delights the psalmist, revives him, keeps him from sin, gives him hope, sustains him through misery, gives him wisdom and understanding, gives him light and peace and keeps him from stumbling.  God’s decrees are counsellors for him – a beautiful picture of scripture as companion and adviser. 

And if this all sounds a bit self-centred, let’s notice two of the psalmist’s prayers.  In verse 36 he pleads, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain”.  In meditating on God’s precepts and fixing his heart on God’s ways the psalmist does expect some response from God – but he also expects to be transformed into a less selfish person – perhaps we could even say a more generous person, more committed to the welfare of the weak who are protected by God’s law, like the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  And though he trusts that his obedience will translate into a good outcome – “173 Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts” – he is also determined that any good outcome for him will be a good outcome for God too, for he will have the opportunity to continue being obedient and praising God.  To quote verses 88 & 175: “88 In your steadfast love spare my life, so that I may keep the decrees of your mouth… 175 Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.”

As I finish, let’s return to our headline: the Bible is there to benefit us not to condemn us”.  The psalmist delights in scripture.  It is his constant companion.  The delight and constant companionship feed each other.  Maybe there is something there for us to appropriate for ourselves in our personal lives.  But I think there are corporate benefits too, to our wider community as we turn our hearts to God’s ways and not to selfish gain, and to our church community.  Brueggemann describes Israel at the time of the psalms as marginalised (a new word to me!) and “a vulnerable, outsider community, endlessly at risk, without serious social power”.  They find a dependable reassuring constancy in commitment and obedience to God.  For the church generally in post-Christendom Britain – and for us as a congregation as we learn to live without Lesley and without the building in Shepherds Hill - perhaps a love for and obedience to the bible is one response to feeling fragile, vulnerable and on the margins.  Beneficial indeed…