God is Still Speaking: Reading the Bible Biblically

John 20:21-22

2 Timothy 3:14-17

 Reading the Bible can be hazardous to your health. The story is told of a man who sought guidance from scripture: he believed the Holy Spirit would lead him to truth, if he just picked a few scriptures randomly from the Bible.  And so he closed his eyes, opened the Bible, and rested his finger on the opened page.  It read, “And Judas hung himself.”  Perplexed with the message he received, he decided to see what God had in store for him.  He once more closed his eyes, opened a page, and rested his finger on a passage.  To his dismay the second passage counseled, “Go and do likewise.”

Finding inspiration in scripture is not always as clear cut as we might imagine.  There are challenges in the Bible not only in terms of what is said but how we understand the nature of inspiration.   Is the Bible perfect in every way, to be taken literally? Are some scriptures essential, others optional, and still others to be discarded altogether?  How we answer these questions could shape our diets (do we eat ham and clam chowdah) and our attitudes toward divorce, remarriage, and homosexuality.

Several years ago, the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania, became nationally famous because the high school was sued by a group of local citizens, who wanted the school to teach a six-day version Genesis accounts of creation as a scientific theory alongside the theory of evolution. In spite of clear scientific evidence, the same sort of science that allows us to turn on electricity, log onto the internet, and receive a C-T scan, the plaintiffs believed that children should be taught that the earth was less than ten thousand years old and that humans walked alongside dinosaurs. Although the proponents of this viewpoint spoke of intelligent design, they basically adhered to the bumper sticker proclamation, “The Bible says it.  I believe it. That settles it.”

As a child, I loved the song “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.”  It was a fun story for a boy who loved to play military games and cowboys and Indians.  But, later on, I read the story in its entirety and it shocked me: according to the account, God told Joshua to march around the city seven times and after the walls fell to kill every man, woman, and child within.  Those who refused to comply with this bloodlust were also to be killed.  I don’t know what you think, but I cannot imagine God wanting to kill a baby or a pregnant mother or a vulnerable older adult.  Sounds like the Mi Lai massacre during the Vietnam era or the Armenian genocide.

Now, lest you think I am an infidel:  I was raised a small town Baptist, I grew up reading Bible stories, memorized large portions of scripture, and take seriously God’s inspiration in scripture.  I was a whiz at Bible drills, racing to be the first to find the scripture our teacher called out. The Bible is the most important text in my library of spiritual classics and I spend hours reflecting on scripture each week for sermons as well as my personal devotions.  I consider myself a Biblical Christian, but when I read the Bible, I read it with my whole heart and mind – I read it in light of God’s revelation in the life of Jesus, in terms of reason, the best thinking of two thousand years of Christianity, and the spiritual experiences of countless Christians and non-Christians through the ages.

Now, reading the Bible is always challenging. But, it’s not always the science that challenges me.  You see, I believe the passages from Genesis were not intended to tell us the age of rocks but invite us to trust the Rock of Ages.  They tell us that the world reflects God’s wisdom, that life is good, and that all creation is loved by God.

What challenges me are those passages that tell me: Love your enemy….that the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike…Or the parable of the Good Samaritan that challenges me to consider who is my neighbor and whether I should help someone out even when it’s inconvenient or if they come from another land…Or the passages that invite me to trust God even when everything else in life has failed me.  Or, to put the welfare of widows, orphans, and homeless people above my own personal comforts.

These are the hard ones for me….because they expose my own problems with trust, my own temptations to exclude, and my inclination to put my desires ahead of others’ survival needs.

I believe God inspires all of us, even if we don’t regularly read the bible.  I believe that God is inspiring us all right now and that   God’s witness is global: here in Centerville but also in Somalia; in our church but also in houses of worship on the Cape, whether they be Pentecostal, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist.

The Letter to Timothy proclaims all scripture is inspired.  These words, referring to what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible – the New Testament hadn’t been formed yet – basically translate to “all scripture is God-breathed.”  God speaks through the people who wrote scripture, describing their religious experiences and understandings of God in their lives, and in the reading and preaching of scripture.

What is most important in scripture is the big picture of God’s movements in history and in our lives. Scripture tells us of people who encountered God and then shared their encounters with their communities, first by telling stories and sharing wisdom and later in written words. Scripture invites us to be part of the process of revelation and play our role as those who experience God in our time.

Our parents in the faith saw scripture as lively – the beginning and not the end of our spiritual journeys.  They assumed scripture was part of a dialogue: it was historical and challenging – the words shape us but also call us to work out their meaning for our time.

A theologian once said we need to have the scriptures in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This helps us wrestle with their meaning in the complexities of our time.  Perhaps, you know the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian and author of the Hiding Place:she believed the words of the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  She also experienced God’s voice in her conscience and knew that she must lie to save the Jewish refugees, hiding from Nazi soldiers.  To tell the truth would mean certain death for them and also her family in the Nazi concentration camps.  And so she lied, contradicting a literal understanding of the Ten Commandments.

Many Christians, including the abolitionists associated with this church, equally struggled with the conflict between Jesus’ welcome of all people and the biblical admonition that says  “slaves obey your masters.”  They loved their Bibles, but God’s call to justice trumped the dead biblical words of an earlier era.

Today, as we get to know loving gay and lesbian couples, hear the challenges of our transgender brothers and sisters, and empathize with those wrestling with their sexuality, we need to look at the Bible with new eyes, not as a book of rules that condemn but a window into the loving heart of God and our own partnership with our Creator in healing the world.

As we wrestle with the meaning of scripture in our time, we discover that God is still speaking, and God is doing new and creative things, but God’s inspiration always takes the shape of Jesus, whose love broke down barriers and invited us to experience God’s call in the rough and tumble world of everyday personal and political decision-making.  In that interplay of scripture, reflection, the wisdom of others, and the events of daily life, we discover that God is alive and loving, that the words of the Bible become real, and that we are God’s companions in receiving inspiration and wisdom appropriate to our time and place. Thanks be to God, who is truly still speaking!