Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hearing the Voice of God -- Experience

Acts 11:1-18  

How does God speak to us, if burning bushes aren’t a normative experience?   In answer to this question, we’ve considered Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, but could  God also speak to us through our own experiences and the experiences of others?   The idea that God might speak through experience is both an attractive and dangerous idea, but can faith be alive if it’s not experienced?

      An answer might be found in St. Augustine’s confession:   “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”   And Augustine’s confession is similar to that of the Psalmist:
     Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
        my whole being craves you, God.

    My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
           When will I come and see God’s face?  (Psalm 42:1-2 CEB).
According to Augustine and the Psalmist this desire to be in relationship with God is written into our very being.  We won’t rest until we find our fulfillment in God.     Many years ago, I “converted” from being an Episcopalian to being a Pentecostal.  There were a number of reasons why I did this, but ultimately  I was looking for a deeper and richer spiritual experience than what I was finding in the church of my birth.  Although I had been the church my whole life, and had been an acolyte, a choir member, and a lay reader,  in my heart I knew there must be more.  I eventually left Pentecostalism for the Disciples, because I wanted a more balanced spirituality that honored heart and mind, experience and reason.  But the point is, I was looking for a living faith.

     Jeremiah speaks to this concern in his word concerning the new covenant that God will make with Israel.  Unlike the earlier covenant that was written on tablets of stone, this new covenant will be written on the heart.  When this happens, we will no longer have to teach each other about God, because everyone will know the LORD (Jer. 31:31-34).  And as the Psalmist puts it: “Those whose heart is right will see God’s face.” (Psalm 11:7).  

   As we ponder this question of how we can hear the voice of God, another question emerges: Is experiencing God’s presence the desire of our hearts?  If it is, then what are the markers of this experience?  Can we not say that the clearest marker of our love of God is found in the way we love our neighbor?     You might be wondering – where does Acts 11 fit into this conversation?  Well, I chose it because it speaks to how the Spirit can use our experiences to awaken in us an awareness of the presence and purpose of God. 

      According to Luke, when Peter returned to Jerusalem after his visit to Cornelius, he faced a lot of questions from a congregation that still itself as a renewal movement within Judaism.  They asked him – so why did you enter the home of the uncircumcised and eat with them?   They lacked a vision of where the Spirit might be leading them as a movement.  Their question then was this: by what authority did you baptize these uncircumcised Gentiles?

   Peter answers by telling them the story of his own experience.  He tells of his vision and the invitation he received from Cornelius, a Roman soldier and worshiper of God, to come and share the gospel of Jesus with his extended household.  Although he might have gone reluctantly, he went anyway, and has he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in other languages – just like on  the Day of Pentecost.   Whatever doubts he may have had melted away as he watched the Spirit fill this group of people, and therefore, he concluded – how can I not baptize them.  After all, didn’t John the Baptist say that even as he had baptized with water, so Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit?

     If these people were good enough for Jesus, then surely they were good enough for the church. The Spirit had spoken, and the dividing walls came down – even though he didn’t have a scripture, a tradition, or even a good rationale for doing this.  But, from then on, at least in theory,  this would be a church that included Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:28).

      Of course, even if the Spirit takes down walls, we’re very adept at building our own walls.  But, thankfully God doesn’t give up, and so even if we build walls, God continues to use our experiences of faith to break down these walls.

   One of my favorite stories is that of Aimee Semple McPherson.  Back in the 1920s Sister Aimee broke onto the American scene and gained fame as a preacher.  Her critics demanded to know why she thought she could preach.  After all, Scripture seemed clear:  women are supposed to keep silent and refrain from teaching men, so why did she think that she was different?  Why did she think that she could subvert Scripture and 2000 years of tradition and stand in the pulpit and preach?  She answered this question by appealing to her experience.  The Holy Spirit had gifted and called her to preach, so what else could she do?  This sense of calling gave her the confidence she needed to preach, in spite of the opposition that she experienced, and as a result she became one of the best-known evangelists of her day.  She did this long before most Disciple churches, including this one, allowed women to be elders or preachers.

   But experience can be rather mercurial.   You have to be careful about what you think God might be saying.  After all, lots of people have taken the wrong turn because they trusted their gut over Reason or Scripture.

      Although there are dangers to be avoided, Disciples theologian Kris Culp makes a helpful point:   “Experience will not offer us unambiguous perceptions, whole truths, or pure touch points of the holy” Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, p. 71).

    What it does is open our eyes to new movements of the Spirit, by disrupting old ways of doing things and by raising questions of faith that we must address.  She points us to the story of Frederick Douglass, one of the most important abolitionist voices in American history.  Douglass spoke out against the evil of slavery, not because it was the popular view in the surrounding culture, or because religious leaders had spoken against it, or even because he had read it in Scripture.  No, it was his own experience of slavery that told him that slavery was evil, and  that he should do everything he could to end slavery in America.

     I think we are at a similar moment in time when it comes to the question of  homosexuality.  Those who argue against the full inclusion of Gays and Lesbians in the church will point to Scripture, the traditions of the church, and even nature as evidence against allowing gays and lesbians to take positions of leadership in the church, being married, and being ordained.  But is this a Cornelius moment when the Spirit is ushering in a new age?  And if so, what does this mean for the church?

     Although I haven’t had a vision like Peter’s, my experience has led me to believe that God may be doing a new thing.  Now, I’m not prepared to go too deeply into the discussion this morning, but I do have something to share.  Like many Christians, I once believed that both Scripture and the traditions of the church barred the full inclusion of homosexuals in the church.  That was, until my brother, who at the time was a Young Life leader and a committed Christian, came out as a gay man.  That revelation led me to re-evaluate how I read Scripture and church tradition.  I concluded that God was opening the door of inclusion, just as God had done for the Gentiles in Acts 11.  Since I began this journey with the Spirit, I’ve met many other gay and lesbian Christians, who seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.  They give evidence in their lives of strong character and deep spirituality, as deep as I’ve found in any straight Christian.  I know that not everyone is at the same place as I am, but this is where I find myself, and the reason I’m here is rooted in my experiences.

     So, is experience revelatory?  By itself, I’d say no.  Experience can, as they say, provide false positives.  But, there are ways for us to discern whether God is speaking to us through experience.  We can compare our experiences with those we find recorded in Scripture and Tradition, and ask if this experience is reasonable.  Together, as we listen for the voice of the Living God, who continues to speak to us in the here and now, we will find the answers we’re looking for.

      And in the end we return to St. Augustine’s point:   “Thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”   Yes, ours is a living faith, a faith that includes both minds and hearts, a faith that is growing and evolving even as we seek to walk in the presence of the Living God, who has made us for this purpose.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 25, 2012
5th Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How do you hear the Voice of God? Reason -- A Sermon

Third in a series of four
Acts 17:16-21   

 I think we’ve established over the past few weeks that even if God doesn’t normally speak to us in an audible voice, we can still hear the voice of God.  We just need help.  There’s Scripture, of course, which we often call the Word of God, and it is normally our starting point.  After all, we read from Scripture every Sunday as part of worship.  But as the Gospel of John reminds us, Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh, not the Bible.  Although Scripture seems to be a central way in which God speaks to us, is it the only way we hear God speak?

     We started to answer this question last Sunday with a conversation about Tradition, which is the ongoing story of God’s involvement in our world, beginning with Creation and continuing to this day.  Tradition is an important voice, but perhaps there are still others that might speak to us.  If so, could Reason be one of those ways in which God speaks?

        In planning worship this week I discovered that there aren’t many songs and hymns that celebrate Reason.  I also couldn’t come up with any great Broadway songs as a followup to last week’s wonderful song from the Fiddler on the Roof’ – Tradition.  I did think about suggesting to Pat that he might want to play the original Star Trek Theme as the Prelude, but then Logic suggested that might not be a very reasonable idea.

     So, even if we don’t have a great Broadway tune to celebrate it, can God speak to us through Reason?  Could resources like philosophy and science be ways in which God’s voice might be revealed to us?  

      Although the Founders of the Disciples Tradition believed Scripture was the primary way through which God speaks to us, they also believed that the Christian faith should be a reasonable one.  They were deeply attracted to thinkers like John Locke, who believed that Truth is largely self-evident.  We just have to open our eyes to this self-evident Truth.  You’ll find a similar attitude present in the American Declaration of Independence, where Thomas Jefferson, who was a Deist, wrote: 
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
How do you know that you’ve been endowed with these inalienable rights?  Reason tells you that this is the Truth.  It’s self-evident.

     Although Alexander Campbell believed that some things having to do with our relationship with God lie beyond the bounds of unaided human understanding, he also believed that religious Truth shouldn’t conflict with Reason. Like Joe Friday, he believed in the facts, and you will find the Facts revealed in Scripture, and this revelation should not conflict with Reason.  He wrote:
    Indeed, faith, Divine faith, is the conviction or evidence of things not submitted to our senses.  But in no case does it conflict with the true and proper constitution of the human mind--nor with the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as developed in creation.
So, if you hear someone say that Scripture and science are in conflict, and therefore they’ll go with Scripture – Campbell might say – you’d better check the facts, because you must be missing something.

     It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I value things intellectual, which may be why I’ve been attracted to Campbell’s vision of a reasonable faith.  And I’m not alone in this.  I’ve had many conversations with members of this church about just this “fact.”  I expect that many of you would join me in agreeing with Galileo, who said:     
    “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
    And since Scripture commands us to Love God with our entire being, which includes heart, soul, strength, and Mind, I believe that it’s probably okay to pay attention to the Mind. 

     Just to make sure I was on the right track, I decided to do a bit of online research, and I did a search to see what the Bible had to say about this topic.  I have to admit that some of the passages I uncovered proved to be a bit discouraging.  Consider what Ecclessiastes 1:18 has to say:  “In much wisdom is much aggravation; the more knowledge, the more pain” (CEB).  Maybe the writer of these words of wisdom had just finished an exam, but Paul said something similar.  Although Paul told the Romans that the things of God should be plain to us, because God is revealed to us through the things God has made (Romans 1:19-20), in 1 Corinthians Paul insists that the foolishness of God is greater than human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).   So much for Galileo’s vision!  Maybe Reason is a dead end!

      Then we come to the story we read together just a moment ago.  Paul had gone to Athens, which in Paul’s day was a university town, something like Ann Arbor, though without the football stadium.    It seems that the Athenians loved to spend their time doing nothing but talk philosophy and theology.  These are Reasonable people!  They love to talk about new ideas.  But it’s not just the residents of Athens who love to talk about such things, even the visitors – people like Paul, for instance – loved to join in the conversation.   Luke mentions Paul’s debates with the Stoics and the Epicureans, but there were a lot of other schools to engage as well.

      Besides the schools of philosophy there were synagogues, temples, and shrines.  In fact there we so many that Paul seems to have been deeply distressed by what he found there.  But, he also found a shrine dedicated to the “unknown God.”  Since no one had claimed this shrine, Paul decided he would fill in the blank, and preach the God of Jesus as this “Unknown God.” 

      So, after spending some time preaching in the synagogues Paul went out and stood on his soap box and started giving a lecture. Remember this is a university town so people might have enjoyed listening to lectures and engaging in debates. The people even dragged Paul before the Council so that he could be interrogated.  You see, many of the people found Paul’s message to be rather unreasonable.  It wasn’t all that self-evident, especially Paul’s message about the resurrection. 

     You see, many Greeks believed that the body is a prison, and the goal is to free yourself from that prison.  So why would you want to experience resurrection if that meant continuing your bodily existence?   Although the mind and the soul are good, the body is simply a hindrance to our ability to enjoy the spiritual. 

    Although I don’t enjoy admitting this, it appears that Paul’s stay in Athens was not a success.  He didn’t plant a church nor did he gain many converts.  It seems that the Athenians just didn’t think the Gospel was very reasonable.  If that’s true, then why should we believe that God would speak to us through human reason?   Why should we take Galileo’s word over that of the writer of Ecclesiastes?  And, even if Campbell, Locke, and Aquinas value wisdom, could Martin Luther have been right when he said: 
    “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
After listening to Luther, maybe I should just sit down and forget about finding any help from Reason, except I like what Galileo had to say about God creating us with Minds, expecting us to use them.

     I think that Luther was a bit like Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.  He’s well educated, but he’s a passionate sort of person.  Dr. McCoy seems to rely a lot on Emotion, while his friend, Mr. Spock values Logic and seeks to suppress Emotion.  As you may know there’s a third member of what we might call the Star Trek trinity.  That person is Captain Kirk who always finds himself listening to these very distinct voices – Spock’s Logic and McCoy’s Emotion.  Like Kirk we too listen to both voices, and as we seek to know the way of God it would seem that we must balance these two voices.  We are, you might say, people with both hearts and minds.  When we overemphasize one at the expense of the other, is it possible to truly hear the voice of God?  

     So, do you think ours should be a reasonable faith?  Do you think that God might reveal some of what God would have us know and understand through science and philosophy?  Even if some of the things of God may appear at times to be foolishness to some, does accepting the Gospel mean losing our minds? 

     As we ponder this question, perhaps a word from James will offer us guidance:  He writes that “anyone who needs wisdom should ask God,” and “wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.”  (James 1:5).

      I think Galileo would agree with James – as would John Locke and Alexander Campbell, who both believed that faith and reason can get along!  

   Oh and just so we don’t leave out Dr. McCoy, next week we’ll talk about how God might speak to us through experience. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 18, 2012

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hearing God's Voice: Tradition

Mark 7:1-13
  I expect that most of us have never heard God speak directly to us in an audible voice.  We’ve never had a burning bush or Damascus Road experience.  So, if this is true, then how can we hear God’s voice? 

    Last Sunday we talked about how God might speak to us through Scripture, but even if it is the Word of God, is it the only voice through which God speaks?  Going forward I suggested a couple of other possibilities including Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  Having spoken on Scripture, as you might expect from this morning’s anthem, today I’m going to speak on Tradition. 

    Now, in Mark 7 we find Jesus confronting an angry group of religious leaders who are appalled that Jesus’ disciples hadn’t properly washed their hands before eating.  While it may sound like an issue of good hygiene, it was really more a question of following tradition.  These leaders didn’t appreciate the disciples’ lack of respect for the way things have always been done.  But Jesus responded by saying that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out – and by that he means what we say and what we do. 

    While they were concerned about certain hand washing traditions, they found all kinds of ways of voiding God’s commandments.  For instance, Jesus pointed to the little loophole that some had used to avoid caring for their parents by declaring that their wealth was dedicated to God, despite the fact that the Law requires that we honor our parents.

    I don’t think Jesus was against Tradition, but he was aware that sometimes we use Tradition to avoid doing what God would have us do.  Perhaps Jaroslav Pelikan said it best by distinguishing between  Tradition, which he called the “living faith of the Dead,” and  traditionalism, which he called “the dead faith of the Living.”   Those religious leaders seem to have been traditionalists in the bad sense of the word, because they let their human “traditions” undermine the Tradition of God.      

    Although there’s a downside to Tradition, can we still hear God’s voice in Tradition?  As we think about that question let’s go back to our anthem and Tevye’s take on Tradition.  According to Tevye, Tradition helps keep life balanced, like being a fiddler on the roof:
     Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years.

           Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything.

           How to sleep.
           How to eat.
           How to work.
           How to wear clothes.
           For instance,
           we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl.
           This shows our constant devotion to God.
           You may ask, how did this tradition get started?
           I'll tell you.  I don't know.
           But it's a tradition.
           And because of our traditions,
            every one of us knows who he is
            and what God expects him to do.
      Isn’t this what we all want to know?  Don’t we want to know who we are and what God expects of us?  This guidance might not tell us how to sleep, what to eat, or what to wear, but we want to know that there’s a reason for our existence.

    The problem is, we can’t always distinguish the human traditions, which keep us from hearing God’s voice, from the ones that reveal God’s voice.  Because this is true, we fall into the traditionalism of “this is the way we always do it” or “we’ve never done it that way.”   When this happens we get stuck in the past and miss out on what God is doing now and what God is going to do in the future.

    Peter had a vision that broke through traditions that guided his life, but which kept him from understanding where God was leading the Jesus movement.  You can see how anchored Peter was in the past by how he responded to the vision that came to him as he was praying around noon.  In this vision Peter saw a sheet that contained all kinds of unclean  animals, and a voice from heaven said: Kill and eat.  Peter responded: “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  To which the voice responded:   “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”   (Acts 10:14-15). With  that conversation Peter realized that God was writing Gentiles into the story of the people of God.    

    So how can we hear God speak to us through Tradition?

    We Disciples have always struggled with Tradition.  Being born on the frontier Disciples founders like the Campbells and Barton Stone tried to get of rid anything that they believed were “human traditions.”  Believing that the way to Christian unity required going back to the New Testament, where they believed God had given clear instructions for the way the church should exist, they decided that if it wasn't in the Bible, then it was a human tradition that wasn't binding on anyone. 

    So, with fear and trepidation I want to suggest that God can speak to us through Tradition.  By Tradition, however, I mean God’s story that starts with creation and continues on to the present.  Along the way we see how God not only creates, but God seeks to bring us back into the covenant relationship that we continually forsake.  The key moment in this story is the call of Abraham and Sarah, through whom God forms a people so that God can bless the world.   The story continues through Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and on toward Jesus, through whom God brings the Gentile world into the story.  We call this “salvation history.”  But we could also call it Tradition, and the story continues on beyond the New Testament, to our day, when our story gets added to this unfolding Tradition.  

    According to Paul our names get added to the story as we embrace the message he considered of first importance – that “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.” (1 Cor. 15:3-4 CEB).   

    Moving on beyond the New Testament, as we consider the ongoing history of the church, we see pictures of the way in which Christians have heard this news and have tried to live it out.   By paying attention to Tradition, we see how our predecessors have tried to live this faith that we’ve embraced.   As is true with scripture, not all of these pictures are flattering.  They don’t always show us at our best, but they continually remind us that God is faithful.

    This story begins in the world of a hostile Roman Empire and extends to the far points of the globe.  We see the church face persecution and then the embrace of an empire that brought security at a price.  There are stories of corruption and reform; stories of unity and division.  Of course, as any genealogist will tell you, we all have skeletons in our closets, and Tradition has a habit of revealing them.  But again, even in our own unfaithfulness, we see the faithfulness of God revealed.

    Although we Disciples might not like to admit it, we have our own Traditions. These include the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, baptism by immersion on confession of faith, a commitment to Christian unity, and a valuing of freedom to interpret and apply the biblical message to our lives.  

    Central Woodward has also some traditions that express God’s vision – and like all communities we have a bit of traditionalism as well that can keep us stuck in the past and unable to embrace the present and the future!  But, staying positive, I’ll point to the way in which we value our involvement with the regional and general church.  It’s seen in our commitment to ecumenical partnerships.  This tradition of engagement beyond the congregation goes back to the founding of the church on Woodward Avenue. Back then we had active partnerships with many other congregations, including Metropolitan United Methodist Church, which now hosts Motown Mission, as well as Temple Beth El, the Jewish synagogue across the street from old Central Woodward.  Edgar Dewitt Jones served as president of the predecessor to the National Council of Churches.

    Each of us also have traditions that tell the story of how God is present in our own lives.  A few weeks back, I spoke of how my own spiritual journey led me from my roots in the Episcopal Church to finding a home among the Disciples.  Even if, like Tevye, we don’t know exactly how all our Traditions began, they help give some balance to our lives and reveal to us the purpose of God.

    You may have noticed that many of the songs and hymns that we’re singing today speak of the Lord’s Supper.  That’s because the Lord’s Supper is the primary carrier of this tradition that Paul considered to be of first importance.  Each week as we hear the Words of Institution, we are told:   “Do this in Remembrance of Me.”  

 As we participate in this meal, we are reminded of Jesus’ life, his death, and his resurrection, which according to Matthew’s version of the story brings with it forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, as we gather at the Table in a few moments, may we listen for the voice of God speaking to us through this story we call “salvation history” or Tradition.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Third Sunday of Lent
March 11, 2011

Sunday, March 04, 2012

How do we hear the Voice of God? -- Scripture

2 Timothy 3:14-17

I know what you’re thinking.  This sounds more like a lecture series than a sermon series.  You’re wondering – will he put on his preacher’s hat or his professorial one.  It’s a good question.  Let me try on this professorial hat for a moment.

As I see if this hat fits, I can say that the series is inspired by questions that came up during our “Ask the Pastor” conversation last August. The questions that I hope to address with this series include:  How do we hear God’s voice so we know what we should be and do?   And, how do we actually know if it’s God’s voice or some other voice that we are hearing?

  If you’ve ever heard Billy Graham preach, you know what he thinks.  It’s just:   “The Bible says . . .”    If you want to know what God wants us to do, just read your Bible.  Or, as it’s sometimes put:  “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  Or does it?  

If you read very far into the Bible you quickly discover that it says a lot of different things, and not everything you read seems to carry God’s voice.  So, if God does speak through Scripture, how do we know when it’s God and when it’s not?

Since we’ve been talking about Islam recently with Saeed, we’ve learned something about the Qur’an.   Now, to a Muslim, God dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad.  It contains only one voice and one story, that’s the one God told to Muhammad.  Now, some Christians believe something similar about the Bible, but the Bible is really a very different kind of book.  It contains stories, histories, testimonies, poems and songs, prophecies, and Laws, which were written and compiled over a period of more than a thousand years.  And that took place a very long time ago.  So, if this book is as complex as it seems, how does God speak to us as Christians through it?  And does God use anything else to communicate with us?

As we seek answers to these questions, it’s important to remember that we’re the theological descendants of the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformers wanted to reform the church by going back to the Bible, and they sometimes used a Latin phrase -- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) – to describe how they thought God speaks to the church.

Our Disciple forebearers, feeling the need to push the reform the church even further, tried to restore the New Testament church.  

Over these four Sundays of March my sermons will lift up four interrelated ways in which I believe God can speak to us.  Some people call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Although John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement,  believed that Scripture had primacy over any other voice, he also believed that if we’re going to truly hear God speak to us, we’ll need other resources as well, and he suggested using Tradition, Reason, and Experience to help us better listen for God’s voice.

This morning we’ll focus on Scripture, and as we do this, I think maybe I’ll take off my professorial hat and try to find my preacher hat.  

Luke tells a story in Acts 17 about Paul’s journey through Macedonia and Greece. Whenever he and his colleagues came to a town, he would preach about Jesus’ death and resurrection in the local synagogue.  Unlike some famous evangelists, he wasn’t always that successful.  Some people didn’t even find his sermons all that interesting or compelling.  I guess he was no Fred Craddock!!

But things were different when he arrived at Berea.  Not only were they open to hear what he had to say, they would check the scriptures to see if what he was saying was true. Listen to what Luke has to say about them:
The Beroean Jews were more honorable than those in Thessalonica. This was evident in the great eagerness with which they accepted the word and examined the scriptures each day to see whether Paul and Silas’ teaching was true.  (Acts 17:11 CEB).

They did this, even though they didn’t have their own bibles sitting on their laps.  They couldn’t check out the cross-references on their phones or laptops.

Although they were open to what Paul and Silas had to say, they also wanted to make sure that it was true to the biblical story, which for them was the Greek Old Testament.  And they decided that God was speaking to them.

I think most of us recognize that the Bible is important, even if we don’t read it regularly.  There’s something special about this book, which is why people started swearing oaths on it, even though Jesus told people not to swear oaths by heaven or the Temple.  When I read Jesus’ statements about oaths, I’m not sure God likes this practice, but it’s understandable.

While Billy Graham uses the phrase “The Bible Says,” I think it’s better to say:  “the Bible reads.”
When we read the Bible, we bring a lot of baggage with us.  We bring our culture, our traditions, and our experiences to the table.  The writers of these texts we call scripture brought their cultures, traditions and experiences to the table as well.  So, it’s really not as simple as “the Bible says,” is it?

I’ll give you a quick example from 1 Corinthians 14:33-34.  It reads:
33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace. Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says.
I’m not sure which Law Paul has in mind, but I am sure that there are many women here today who don’t hear God speaking to them through these verses.  God might desire order, but keeping women quiet won’t bring peace in this day and age!!  

We sometimes call Scripture the Word of God, but how is it a word from God to us?

Karl Barth said that the Bible is the Word of God when it points us to Jesus, who, according to John 1, is the Word of God in the flesh.  And in our scripture for today, Timothy is commended because “since childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:16 CEB).  And, if you search for the word “Scripture” in an online concordance, you’ll find that most of the New Testament references point to Jesus, who according to the texts “fulfills the scripture . . .”  That’s what the Bereans were looking for as the checked out what Paul was saying.  The question is:   Do we check the scriptures?   And if we do, what do we hear?

When you read the Bible, do you hear God saying to you – I created you to be in a  relationship?  Do you hear God saying that this world is good and that God values it and God wants you to be a good steward of this world in which you live?  Do you hear in the story of Jesus a word about  God’s steadfast love for this world?  Do you hear in it the story of how God seeks to restore to wholeness the relationship that seems to be broken between us and God?   Do you hear a word about God’s faithfulness, even when we’re not faithful?  Do you hear God speaking about these things in and through the story of Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection?

Scripture tells a story, and we’re part of it.  Even though not everything in this book applies to our lives, the point is – it tells us how God’s love is steadfast and that it is embodied for us by Jesus, who is the Word of God in the flesh.

In 2 Timothy 3, in a letter written sometime late in the first century under Paul’s name to a young pastor that the letter addresses as Timothy, we’re told that Scripture is “inspired by God.”  That is, it’s “God-breathed,” which, if I read the creation story correctly, means that this story carries the life-force, the breath, of God to us, so that we might live in the presence of God.

If we receive this God-breathed word, the letter says, it will teach us, it will show us our mistakes, offer us a word of correction, and train our character.  In other words, Scripture is a very practical story, because if we can hear within its words the voice of God, then God will use them to form us into children of God who are equipped to do that which is good in the world.

Or, as J.B. Phillips translation puts it:
The Scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him for all branches of his work.    
This translation may lack gender inclusivity, but it catches the spirit of the passage.  The scriptures provide us with “comprehensive equipment,” so we’ll be prepared to share in the work of God in the world.

Scripture is, according to the teaching of the church, the Word of God written.  It tells a story into which we’ve been written, and it provides us with the equipment so that we can live lives that reflect God’s vision for the world.  But, if we’re to truly hear this  Word from God, we may need some other resources, like Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

   Having considered Scripture, next Sunday we’ll focus our attention on the Tradition part of the equation!  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 4, 2012
2nd Sunday of Lent