Sunday, October 17, 2010

Spotting the Counterfeits

2 Timothy 3:1-17
Ordinary 29
October 17, 2010
William G. Carter

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In one of her books, Kathleen Norris recounts the tale of an old-timer in her South Dakota town, a man named Arlo. Arlo sat down with her at a steak house one Saturday night, and out of the blue he began talking about his grandfather. Granddad was a deeply religious man, or as Arlo put it, "a damn good Presbyterian." He went to church. He prayed regularly. More to the point, when Arlo got married, his grandfather gave him a Bible. It looked like an expensive gift, bound in white leather, with the young couple's names embossed in gold letters on the cover.

"I left it in its box and it ended up in our bedroom closet," Arlo said, "but for months, every time we saw granddad he would ask me how I liked that Bible. My wife sent a thank you note, and we thanked him in person, but somehow he couldn't let it lie. For years, every time we saw him, he always asked how we liked that Bible. I always thanked him, again and again, and he would ask me about it the next time I saw him."

"One day," he said, "I discovered the joke was on me. I finally took the Bible out of that closet and I found that granddad had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and at the beginning of every other book, over thirteen hundred dollars in all. And he knew I'd never find it."

It's a funny story, and it says two things which are important as I start this sermon. First, the Bible is a special book, full of all kinds of hidden treasures. And second, the Bible seems so special that we are inclined to keep it in a closet a lot longer than we should.

The text for today is a text about texts. It's one of the few passages where the Bible talks about itself. That, in itself, is instructive. Usually the Bible is too busy pointing to God, or speaking about God, or revealing what is doing for the world in Jesus Christ. It doesn't talk about itself. Not much, at least.

The psalm for today is one exception. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible -- 176 verses -- and it is a sustained meditation upon the benefits of reading the Bible. "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path."

At the other extreme, another place where the Bible talks itself is the last chapter of the second letter of Peter. The writer refers to the letters of Paul, which were circulating around the church at that time. "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lost your own stability. But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:15-18)

What is striking in our text for today is that this is the only place where the Bible refers to itself as inspired. According to this writer, "All scripture is inspired by God."

Now, for a lot of people, "inspiration" is a spooky word. Since this is the only place where that word is used in referring to the Bible, it's not clear what that means.

A few hundred years ago, with the rise of the scientific method, a number of inspiration theories began to emerge. Someone said, "Obviously God whispered the divine message into the ear of the writers, and they wrote what they were told." Someone else said, "The Holy Spirit came, and overwhelmed people, and their hands began to move mysteriously, and they began to write the words the Spirit wanted them to write." I don't know what you think about it, but such ideas sound a bit far-fetched for me. That doesn't explain why the gospel of Mark has three different endings, or why part of the eighth chapter of John (7:53-8:11) is missing from the oldest manuscripts.

The Bible has a history. It was written over thousands of years by a lot of different people in different circumstances. That's where God was -- not whispering, or moving people's arms -- but by putting the writers in the right place, at the right time, so they could tell what they had seen and heard. And the more we know about the Bible and its history, the better we can appreciate the subtle ways God has worked through the writers of Scripture.

There's a hymn by the contemporary writer Brian Wren which points to the ways in which the Bible came to be written (PH 330):

Deep in the shadows of the past, far out from settled lands,
Some nomads traveled with their God across the desert sands.
The dawn of hope for humankind was glimpsed by them alone:
A promise calling them ahead, a future yet unknown.

While others bowed to changeless gods they met a mystery:
God with an uncompleted name, "I am what I will be";
And by their tents, around their fires, in story, song, and law
They praised, remembered, handed on a past that promised more.

From Abraham to Nazareth the promise changed and grew,
while some, remembering the past, recorded what they knew,
and some, in letters or laments, in prophecy and praise,
Recovered, held, and re-expressed new hope for changing days.

For all the writings that survived, for leaders long ago,
who sifted, chose, and then preserved the Bible that we know,
Give thanks, and find its promise yet: our comfort, strength, and call,
The working model for our faith, alive with hope for all.
("Deep in the Shadows of the Past" (c) Brian Wren)

The Greek word for "inspiration" seems to have been coined for the occasion. The word is theopneustos. Theos means "God," pneustos means "breath." So the term is "God-breathed." From God's respiration came the Bible's inspiration. This was a way of announcing the Bible's authority and importance.

But ever since, people have gotten nervous about burning the Bible in the same way they are nervous about burning a flag. There was a church that was cleaning its closets. Someone found a pile of tattered Bibles. Some of the covers were missing, the pages were worn. So she threw them into a dumpster in back of the church. A Sunday School teacher was shocked. She climbed into the dumpster and tossed them out, all the time mumbling, "This is a disrespectful way to treat God's word." Then she tucked the worn-out Bibles in a closet where they could collect mildew and mold.

Like I said a few minutes ago, the Bible seems so special that we are inclined to keep it in a closet a lot longer than we should. The problem is, it doesn't do any good that way. You can point to a Bible on the shelf and say, "Behold the Word of God," but so what? I think the one thing the church must press itself to do is to take the Bible out the museum and put it in our heads, our hearts, and our souls. Inspired? Yes. But it also ought to be helpful.

It matters where we get our input. A preacher friend once preached a stewardship sermon that I thought was pretty good. Before your eyes glaze over at the mention of a stewardship sermon, I need to say he was speaking about the stewardship of our spirits, about taking care of our interior life. He notes,

"There are so many things which tempt us, with which we can fill our hearts and minds. There is music which denigrates people and extols destructive power, and music which celebrates life in its wondrous facets. We can focus on what's wrong about life and blame God, or we can consider what is right and give God glory. We can enjoy the exposes of human weakness and evil or we can marvel at human achievement and generosity in spite of weakness . . . The decision to set our minds on higher things is an act of will. It is a decision we make every day, consciously and unconsciously. It is a way of thinking and living. As we choose to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the healing and redemption in Christ will break in upon us, and our lives will reflect it. Whatever we choose to think on makes all the difference." (quoted in Speaking of Stewardship)

That seems to be the essence of what this text has to say. God has breathed out a Bible. It's chock-full of stories, wise sayings, songs, and prayers. In giving this gift, God has given us something to think about, to reflect upon, to turn toward. Without it, it would feel like being stranded in an elevator for sixteen hours, and there's nobody interesting to talk to, and no word from beyond your own circumstances. Sooner or later, you would start bending in on yourself. But when you hear somebody announce from beyond the door, "I'm coming to help you," it makes all the difference in the world.

The fact is, there's a lot at stake. That's what prompted a church leader to write this letter to a young pastor. He knew what we could become if we simply went with the flow, took life as it comes, and coasted in the currents of the world. Did you hear how our scripture text began?

"People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power." (2 Timothy 3:2-5)

It matters where we get our input. And it matters that we have a church to help us work it through. "As for you," says the writer, "continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have know the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." Do you hear the presence of the church? Teaching, learning, believing, instructing. This is no private enterprise, but the building up of the whole body of Christ.

Maybe you heard about the man who turned to the Bible for guidance. He decided to pray, flip open his Bible, and put his finger down. Wherever he put his finger, that was God's word to him. So he prayed, flipped it open, and put his finger on Matthew 27:5. "And Judas went and hanged himself."

That didn't sound very inviting, so he did it again. He prayed a brief prayer, opened up the Bible, and touched down on Luke 10:37. "Go and do likewise."

Now he was starting to worry, so he decided to try one more time. He prayed. He flipped open the Good Book. He put his finger on John 13:27, where it is written, "Do quickly what you are going to do."

In that scenario, we expect the Spirit to make all the connections. It borders on the sin of tempting God; that is, demanding God to give us just what we need, at the moment when we need it.

What we have is the Bible. What we've been given is the Bible. And the Bible teaches us that the first commandment is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength."

Let me speak a pastoral word here: if you are not involved in some systematic study of scripture, your soul may be in a lot of trouble. If you come to church for a few tidbits or trivia, you're missing the great riches of our faith. If the only place you get your news is from the Wall Street Journal or MSNBC, then reality is filtered through somebody else's lenses . . . and you may not be getting the full picture of a God who loves you so much that he did not spare his own son.

The Bible is inspired; but it matters more if it's useful. And the only way to understand its usefulness is to pick it up and read it.

Peter Gomes, the Harvard University preacher, tells about the time when an anonymous benefactor offered to donate as many Bibles as were needed to fill the pews at Harvard's Memorial Church. The donor didn't specify any particular translation, so Gomes suggested the Revised Standard Version. Before the order was placed to the publisher, however, he decided to run the idea by colleagues on the staff and faculty. They were suspicious. "What is the benefactor up to?" someone asked. Another said, "If you put Bibles in the pew racks, you are only inviting people to steal them." Somebody else warned, "People will think this is a fundamentalist church if they see Bibles lying around. You might have an image problem."

Gomes realized his colleagues meant well, but he went ahead and accepted the gift. Bibles were placed in the pews of Harvard's Memorial Church, and fortunately, he says, quite a few have disappeared over the years.

You know, the highest compliment you could ever give me is if you met me at the back door and said, "I've decided to take the Bible home with me." That would be great; provided, of course, that you don't keep the book in the closet.

(c) William G. Carter
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