Books are meant to be read, and if we read the Bible we put ourselves in a position to hear God speak from its pages. Although the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, it may also be the least read best seller of all time. People buy Bibles for all kinds of reasons. I’ve heard they make nice decorations and good gifts. Back when I was in seminary, working for a Christian bookstore, I sold Bibles. Now, selling Bibles was easier twenty-five years ago than it is today. That’s because there were fewer translations and fewer editions of those translations to offer people. Now there are probably thirty or forty different options for the New International Version alone.
While I enjoyed selling Bibles, I’ve been known to talk people out of buying them. It’s not that I don’t want people to own Bibles, I’d just like them to get a Bible they’ll use. On one occasion a lady came into the store looking for a white Bible. I asked her why she wanted a white Bible, and she said that she wanted to give it to a baby girl. I told her that all our white bibles were King James Version and that they weren’t all that easy to read, especially if you’re a baby. I tried to convince her to get a Bible the little girl would use when she got older, but she insisted on a white bible, because well it was for a girl.
Psalm 19 and 2 Timothy 3 celebrate the usefulness of Scripture. They say that Scripture has a purpose and that it "shapes us for the tasks that God has given us" (2 Tim. 3:17 MSG). These Scriptures help revive the soul, make wise the simple, enliven the heart, and enlighten the eyes. But if the Bible is going to make a difference in our lives, we must read these words with open eyes, open minds, and open hearts. In other words we must read them reverently but critically.
Receive the Living Word
In Genesis 2, God took a lump of clay and breathed life into it, creating humanity. In 2 Timothy 3 God takes human words and breathes life into them. Scripture carries with it the life-giving breath of God, so that when we read these seemingly human words reverently but critically, we can hear God’s voice declaring to us: I love you and this is how I want you to live.
Scripture doesn’t answer every question under the sun, because it’s an ancient book that addresses ancient issues. And yet, in its pages we read about the wonders of a Creator who created us to be in a relationship. This God then became incarnate in Jesus so that we could more readily experience that relationship. Scripture also calls us to be a faithful community of compassion, mercy, and of service. If we hear and receive this Word then our hearts and our minds will be revived and enlightened and we will discover the wisdom of God.
The Useful Word
Some people read Scripture as if it were a jumble of theological and moral propositions that need to be organized. But others find in this collection of poetry, songs, stories, sermons, essays, and commandments a call to celebrate the God who created humanity for a reason. The Biblical story begins with the creation of something wonderful and goes on to tell the story of why God’s crowning achievement chose to go it alone and then how God, like a shepherd, went looking for the sheep. Scripture tells us that Jesus is the shepherd who draws the lost sheep back into the fold. Scripture also shows us how God’s people ought to live in relationship to each other. James Dunn says that Scripture is designed "to produce well-instructed and disciplined adults, proficient and well-equipped in the graces and skills required for a positive role in church and society." In other words, Scripture shows us how to love God and how to love our neighbor. It also gives us plenty of examples of what not to do! Consider for a moment Cain and Abel!
And so we read in 2 Timothy that:
- Scripture is Useful for Teaching
How will you know about God if no one teaches you? We believe in Jesus, and declare him to be our Lord, but how do we know this unless we hear a word about him. Nature may declare that God is glorious and skillful in creating. Experience may suggest that there’s more to life than what we see. But there’s so much more to know, and when we read Scripture with open hearts we find answers to our questions. We discover that God wants to be our guide, our redeemer, and the sustenance of our lives. Scripture brings to our minds and our hearts the truth that sets us free, a truth that lays bare our anger and our bitterness, and points us to a better way, a way of service to others. Jesus says: Even as you do to the least of these, you do to me. And we know this truth from Scripture.
- Scripture is useful for Reproof and Correction
Now I don’t really like this aspect of Scripture. I’d rather not be disciplined and have my rebellions exposed, but, Jesus calls us to be his disciples, and like a parent will do, Scripture reminds us that when we’ve moved away from the things of God, God will correct us
When we get lost, we need a map and directions to get back on track. The Law is like that map. It’s a means of correction, even though it doesn’t make us right with God. It reminds us of the way we’re supposed to be going when we’re walking with God. Though the Scripture this passage is talking about is the Old Testament, it’s the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, his death and his resurrection, that guide us on our way back into the fold.
- Scripture is Useful for Training in Righteousness
According to this letter, Scripture teaches us how to live God’s way. In Romans Paul says, God has made you right with himself in Jesus Christ. But he also says: "don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind " (Rom. 12:1). James says, the way we show our love for God is through the way we treat the widow and the orphan. It’s the way we welcome the stranger, and the one who is poor, that shows us how much we love God. James asks: Do you show favoritism to someone because he or she seems wealthy or powerful? Well, not if you’re in Christ! How’s your tongue? Does it destroy with criticism and gossip? Or does it build up and encourage?
As the Psalmist says: "The Revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together." As I heard spoken yesterday, "we should take the Bible seriously, but not necessarily literally." There is great value to be gained from reading its pages, but we must do so both reverently and critically. So let’s open the Bible and see what it has to say, so that we might be proficient in the things of God and equipped for every good work so that together we might enjoy the glory of God.
Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lompoc, CA
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2006