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The Word to Live By
"And he walks with me, and he talks with me," goes the hymn. How does Jesus talk to you? The hymn, "In the Garden," is based on Mary Magdalene's experience on Easter morning. After she found the tomb empty, and reported to Peter, she stood outside the tomb in the garden, weeping. The resurrected Jesus asked her, "Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Not recognizing him through her tears, she assumed he was the gardener and asked him what had been done with Jesus' body. Jesus tenderly said to her, "Mary!" There, in the garden, the resurrected Christ walked with her and talked with her. But, how does Jesus talk to us today?
The lesson that was read this morning follows Mary's experience in the garden. On Easter Sunday evening, Jesus appeared to the disciples and talked to them. Thomas, who came in later, doubted that they had seen Jesus, doubted that Jesus had talked with them. One week later, Jesus again appeared to them, and singling out Thomas, spoke directly to him, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas not only talked with the resurrected Christ, but touched him as well.
But, how does Jesus talk to us today? Where do you go to hear Jesus speak to you? Where do you walk and talk with Jesus? Where is your garden? Have you discovered the garden called the Bible? The Bible is one of the most, if not the most, important means God uses to talk with us. For too many Christians, the Bible is a closed book; an undiscovered, underdeveloped, underutilized resource. Is it fair to say that very few of us actually study the Bible, and even fewer of us expect to hear God speaking to us, talking to us, through the Bible?
Several weeks ago Bob Hamerton-Kelly gave a fascinating Sunday evening lecture on "The Armageddon Myth." In tracing the history of biblical interpretation, he gave an explanation for the low priority too many of us place on the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the Bible had four meanings. 1) Historical, the original meaning; what the passage meant to the original hearers and readers. 2) Allegorical; how the Old Testament foreshadows and prophesies the New Testament. 3) How the New Testament foreshadows and prophesies heaven, or the end time. 4) the personal meaning--the meaning of the passage to today's readers--where Jesus talks to them through the Bible.
Martin Luther and the other reformers essentially dropped the middle two allegorical meanings. The foreshadowing and prophesying meanings were misused by the medieval church to support very strange, unbiblical, self-serving doctrines. In contrast, the reformers emphasized two meanings: the historical and the personal.
In the centuries that followed, especially in the last 100 years, two distortions occurred in Protestant biblical scholarship, each in the opposite direction. The mainline denominations, including Methodist, emphasized the historical meaning. My Bible classes in seminary dealt with historical criticism, where we tried to find the original meaning. Mainline seminaries were especially interested in the quest for the historical Jesus: Who was Jesus? How much of his teaching is authentic, and how much was added to the Bible by later writers? The mainline denominations emphasized the historical meaning to such a degree that the personal meaning was ignored. No longer did we expect to hear Jesus talk to us through the Bible. The Bible became a word to study, not a word to live by.
The other distortion of biblical study went in the opposite direction. Fundamentalist Protestants are not at all interested in the historical meaning, but emphasize the other three meanings, finding much allegory and personal application. This distortion is especially evident in the writings of those who prophesy the end times. They interpret current historical events as having been predicted by biblical prophecies. But, most of the events which they allegorize into our future have already happened in history some 2,000 years ago. They are not interested in the historical Jesus or in the historical events of the Bible.
Our task is the exciting one of rediscovering the two meanings of the Bible--historical and personal. Our task is to learn the Bible's history and through that history hear God speaking to us today. The gospel lesson this morning, after telling the stories of Mary in the garden and doubting/faithing Thomas, concludes with these verses, John 20:30-31 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
"Life in his name" means more than dry history. "Life in his name" means more than exciting history. "Life in his name" means a dynamic, living personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Bible was written, not to be ornamental on the coffee table, not just to be read aloud during worship services, not just to be studied; the Bible was written so that you may have life. The Bible is a living document, inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that through your study and reading, you may walk and talk with Jesus.
How does this happen? Let's look at our Christian understanding of sacred, biblical history, and of God's revelation. The Bible is a realistic, unsophisticated, soul-stirring account of God's reaching out to humankind and the responses people make to God's reaching. The book of Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, the sojourn in and exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wanderings, etc., all lay bare the struggles of people as they confronted the sorrows, mysteries and perplexities of life.
The Bible, in cover-to-cover unity, declares that the meeting place between God and people occurs in experience. The Bible records the struggles, problems and aspirations of those who were confronted by God in their actual lives. God was met within and through events, history. God loves us and seeks his beloved children who have turned a deaf ear to God because of sin. God seeks us where we live, and confronts us within our own experience. We need not enter a monastery or climb a mountain to find God; God is here with us in the common, everyday, ordinary events of life, seeking, forgiving, calling.
We are involved in the same historical process the Bible people were involved in. The past is not dead, but remains a part of today; therefore, there exists an affinity between the Bible and us. The perplexities of our existence are essentially the same as those encountered in the Bible, and when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit as we read the Bible, God can also confront us. The Bible sees the hand of God in each event. When we view life biblically, we too can begin to see the hand of God in our lives and history, and then respond to God's working. In the lecture, "The Armageddon Myth," Bob Hamerton-Kelly said, Christianity is a religion of incarnation. Incarnation means that the divine communicates "in, with, and under" the human. That means that the category of the historical is indispensable, and that we must look for God not in the dimension of the miraculous, mysterious, and catastrophic, but in the dimension of the ordinary, frail, and human. Love is the mark of the divine presence and love is a very humble, often unremarked and unremarkable thing. It is deeply present in history, but it takes faith and hope to see it and to get in touch with it.
Jesus can walk with us and talk with us through the Bible when we gain insight into the original meaning of the passage, get in touch with the aspirations, drama, pain, suffering, and joy of the original characters, identify common ground between the originals and ourselves, and hear the word of God come through to us in the midst of our living, come through to us clearly, forcefully, and lovingly.
Your church is serious about Bible study, and we are launching a new program called SSS, Sermon Scripture Study groups. You are invited to come this afternoon at 5:00 for a workshop on the Bible in a nutshell. As groups then organize, you are invited to join. The groups will study the scripture lesson the sermon on the following Sunday will be based upon. Studying the Bible will include learning the historical meaning, but will also include discussion, sharing, and praying in the hope that God will speak a word to you. You are also invited to open your home for a group. A leader will be provided. Might you host a group in your neighborhood, or apartment building? My dream is to have a group in Lytton Gardens, Channing House, Forest Towers, 101 Alma, Stanford dormitories, your neighborhood, etc. Come this afternoon and we will make our plans, or talk to me or Peggy.
The story is told of a rabbi in a European village, who one day summoned the townspeople to the village square. He said he had an important announcement. The people went because they respected the rabbi, but they went grumbling and muttering. Shop owners closed their stores. Neighbors interrupted their gossiping. Parties were interrupted. The kids stopped playing. When all were present, the rabbi said, "I wish to announce there is a God in the world." That was all he said. But the people got the message. They knew they had been living as if God did not exist.
I wish to announce this morning there is a God who walks with you and talks with you, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. In particular, God will eagerly talk with you through the Bible, the word to live by.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris