WHAT’S IN A WORD?
Homily for Pentecost 14, August 29, 2010
Last week the church and the Parish Ministry Centre were ringing with the voices of children at our Vacation Bible School (VBS). They sang “We’re all getting into the Word of God” and things like “Read it now your life will change,” “God’s word will amaze you,” and “God’s word will surprise you . . .” All true but in real life it’s not always quite so facile.
A recent episode of 30 Rock portrayed Liz Lemon doing a Bible reading at a wedding, and after reading the beautiful words from 1 Corinthians 13, her phone goes off, and it’s a text from her boss, who is also at the wedding, asking her to stall, to draw the service out. So Liz quickly decides to add a reading and starts flipping through the Bible and chooses a couple of things at random, both of which are not only inappropriate to a wedding but positively cringe-worthy.
In virtually every reference made to “the word” in this VBS program, they were referring to the Bible. Yet when you read the Bible itself, only rarely does it use the term “the Word” to refer to a written text. In other words, the Bible does not refer to itself that way. But in the last generation or so, fundamentalist Evangelicals have made such an issue out of making the Bible the Word. In doing so, I believe they have restricted us from perceiving and receiving the word of God in other ways.
In today’s first reading, when the prophet Jeremiah says “the word” came to him, he does not mean a Bible appeared and he sat down and had a good read. Other prophets use that expression as well, but Jeremiah uses that phrase almost 100 times. He is talking about a process of discernment, of prayer and contemplation and an attitude of openness to the possibility that God can speak directly to us, or at least to those with ears willing to hear. He is talking about the proclamation that comes from this encounter.
The Bible uses the term “the word” many times – only rarely does it refer to a written text. In Genesis, Abram received the word of God in a vision (Gen 14). The word of the Lord spoke to Moses to give him the words he needed to confront Pharaoh and the need for Israel to be set free (Exod 4).When Moses uses the term beyond that, he is referring to the Law, the Ten Commandments. Other biblical passages speak of the Law as God’s word also. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Throughout the Old Testament, “the word” refers to the fact that God’s voice, God’s messages and direction, could be discerned by the faithful. God’s word is something that speaks to human beings constantly, in a huge variety of ways. To think of God’s word as confined to a book, no matter how great that book is, makes the Word much less than the Bible itself witnesses to. The prophets were people who tuned in to that inner voice and then articulated it as God’s Word to the people, but God’s word was also reported as coming to King Solomon to guide him and help him discern the future path for Israel. (1 Kings 6:11).
Biblical scholar J.Y. Campbell said: “Word in the Old Testament is usually the translation of Heb. Dabar, which means a spoken utterance of any kind, a saying, a speech, narrative, message, command request, promise, etc. – the precise significance can be determined only from the context” (in A Theological Word Book of the Bible).
When Deuteronomy 30 says, “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe …” it reminds us of this reality: God is not just in a book or in a temple or a set of stone tablets. God’s Word is a spiritual presence. It is in your mouth and in your heart. It is readily accessible. The Bible witnesses to that possibility, and points us in the right direction, but the Bible is not the reality in and of itself. As the Buddhists suggest, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.
John quotes Jesus as saying, “My sheep will hear my voice . . .” and when he says, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (Matthew 13: 19), clearly he is referring to his own preaching – the message about the Kingdom of God which he proclaimed. Mark’s Gospel says: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it” (Mark 4:33) For the Gospel writers, this understanding of the Word is commonplace.
A word is a means of communication, a way of articulating and expressing something. The Letter to Hebrews says: “God has spoken to us by a Son.” John’s Gospel begins with the famous words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1). The Gospel of John tells us that Christ is the Word of God. Again, he is not talking about a book. The fact is that the New Testament was not a definable book for another three centuries after Jesus’ time on earth. The early church did not have Bibles to read from – originally they did not even have the Gospels. They had letters from leaders like Paul, and other writings that were circulated as best they could in an era of single hand-written documents and without the benefit fax, telephone, internet of or even a decent mail system. Otherwise, it was an oral tradition, still relying heavily on Jewish roots.
The Word is a many and varied concept, and from the beginning the Christian Church has believed that preaching is also a vehicle for the Word. As Acts 4: 31 says: “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” They “spoke the word.” The Word was not a book or even something written down – it was an act of faith based on experience of the person of Jesus combined with an openness to the ongoing inspiration and presence of the Holy Spirit. As today’s reading from Hebrews says: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you.”
Writing to the Church in Thessalonika, Paul expresses gratitude that the Christians there have accepted their preaching as the Word of God: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2.13).
To Paul, the Word is not just a text, but is “the word of faith” (Romans 10) that they are proclaiming to the world. Paul refers often to the Hebrew scriptures, but at no time does he suggest the attitude that the Word of God is limited to the text itself – for any Jewish rabbi, including Jesus, the Bible was subject to an ongoing process of interpretation and re-application in new circumstances.
It has been a Christian tradition to refer to the sermon as a process of breaking open the word, much like breaking open bread for the sake of sharing and communion. Those who distinguish the Bible too much from this other dimension of the Word are closing the door both on the Bible and on the living Word as it continues to try to speak to us. As St Peter said: ‘“the word of the Lord endures for ever.’ That word is the good news that was announced to you” (1Peter 1: 25).
So where does this idea that the Bible is the Word come from? Why are evangelicals so keen to restrict its meaning to the Bible? At one point in history, the Church got to a point where the Word was associated so little with the Bible and so much with the practices and customs and edicts of the Church, that after the Protestant Reformation, the place of the Bible was elevated to a much higher place of authority. They had seen so many weird interpretations of Christian life that they wanted to root everything in the Bible. “Sola scriptura” or Scripture alone, became the approach for some Christians. Significantly, Anglicans never took that approach, and have always believed that discerning the Word of God involves Scripture, Tradition and Reason or common sense. Later, when biblical teachings began to be subjected to historical and literary criticism, many Christians drew the wagons into the circle that we now call fundamentalism, which allows for no critical examination of scripture and insists that the Bible is word for word, quite literally, the infallible word of God.
Fundamentalists have often used the final words of the Book of Revelation as a justification for literalism. Revelation concludes with these ominous words. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” But here again, the author is not referring to a Christian Bible, which did not yet exist – he was simply referring to the words of the text of his vision. I don’t like people editing my stuff either!
Like the Pharisees, some Christians operate more out of fear of making a mistake, of wanting to be perfect and correct, whereas to discern the Word is a risky process and you might make a mistake. When Jesus told the parable of the one who was so afraid of the Master (i.e. God) that he buried his talent in the ground, he might have been referring to the unwillingness to engage the tradition and scripture in a creative and faithful way, therefore consigning “the Word” to obscurity.
The New Testament defines the Word either as Jesus, the living Christ, or the preaching and teaching of the apostles. Today’s evangelicals, by defining “Word” only in terms of what can be read in the Bible, are seriously limiting the way God can speak to us. Their rather desperate attempt to defend the Bible actually deprives people of what the Bible actually suggests the Word of God is. Even the Bible itself does not support this view.
In the Gospels we often see a clash between the living Word and those dedicated to the letter of the law, with the Pharisees coming across as mean-spirited, graceless and ignorant. The Gospel writers present a picture of Jesus as the living Word, being insulted, and rejected and thus fulfilling the ancient prophecies. According to this picture, the Pharisees could not accept the living Word because they were committed to an outmoded set of definitions, rules, and practices.
You hear people say “It says so in the Word!” What the Bible says and what it actually means can be two different things. This [Bible] by itself is not the Word. It is a book, and a book sitting inert on a shelf is not the Word in any real sense. Whether the Bible is the Word of God or not depends on a number of factors. Some can read the Bible and derive God’s Word from it. Some read the same words and have no idea. Satan supposedly quoted from the Bible when he confronted Jesus in the wilderness – but although he knew what the (Hebrew) Bible says, he did not know what it truly means. Some people have managed to pull the most horrific concepts and practices from the Bible, and quote the Bible to justify things that the Bible itself obviously witnesses against. Again, it is a larger process that determines whether or not those interpretations have anything to do with the Word of God, which as the Bible itself says, “is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word can no more be contained in a book than God’s Spirit be contained in a Temple (see 1Kings 8:27).
When the little VBS children in the video innocently and naively sang “God’s word will amaze you,” I recognized they are as yet completely unaware of the complexities of the Bible and of life in general. They sing with the conviction of children who have been convinced by their elders that “these words are trustworthy and true.” But those who are more mature know that God’s Word is not just about words, and it is not confined to the Bible.
The Good news is that God communicates. As Hebrews says: God speaks “in many and various ways” and the Bible does not put it in the past tense only – it clearly proclaims that God’s Word continues to come to us and be available to those with ears to hear.
The Bible is the most important book Christians have as a guide to who God is and what God is about. Anglicans take this book very seriously and we ask people to believe that in it the Word of God may be discerned. But the revelation of Jesus shows us that the Word is not just a book – it is the Good News of God’s continuous and diverse message to the world.
If we are not just as prepared to hear the word in the world as in the book, we are not likely to hear it at all.
RCL appointed readings:
Jeremiah 2:4-13 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the LORD?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
Psalm 81:1, 10-16 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it. “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels. O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! Then I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their doom would last forever. I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Luke 14:1, 7-14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
God’s Word is true
God’s Word is comforting
God’s Word is surprising
God’s Word is life-changing
God’s Word is for everyone
All of these are true to a point – but
Cf my own exp of having my mind opened by the literature and phiulosophy and history I was exposed to.
The Bible is an amazing book or collection of books. I believe the Word of God may be found in the Bible – but as many would-be recent converts have discovered, you can quickly get bogged down in historical details or confusing directions, supposedly from God, about diet, clothing and how to dispose of people who disagree with you.
The NT uses the term again and again – only rarely is it referring to the written word of the Hebrew Torah.