Sermon for October 22, 2023
Third in a 3-part series
Back in the days before digital music downloads or CD’s, back even before cassette or 8-track tapes, all our music was listened to on vinyl. I reckon I was out of graduate school when I stopped buying vinyl albums and started switching over to CD’s. I still listen to music, but I am painfully ignorant of what’s current. And what music I do have is now listened to as digital downloads on my phone.
Thinking about this makes me remember my very first album. I remember having 45’s (singles) before this, but my first actual album was American Pie by Don McLean, which I got for my twelfth birthday. I still think of it as one of the greats, and, in fact, for 1972, Billboard ranked its title song as third for the year—right behind Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally).
Going down the list of Top 100 songs for that year is like a trip down memory lane, and I was surprised to see a song I barely remembered at No. 71—Joy by Apollo 100, a rock version of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. At No. 73 was one of Three Dog Night’s lesser-known hits called I’ve Never Been to Spain. And right between those two was a song I’d have thought would’ve been higher on the list because I remember it so well (perhaps because it was used in a popular ketchup commercial). At No. 72 was the song Carly Simon says she wrote in fifteen minutes while waiting for Cat Stevens to pick her up for a date: Anticipation.
Anticipation is making me late, is keeping me waiting. The chorus sounds impatient. But in the end, the song is about living in the moment: Stay right here 'cause these are the good old days. This is a message the Bible teaches throughout its pages. The Old Testament tells us over a hundred times to wait on God. And one of Jesus’ clearest messages in the Sermon on the Mount is the one where he talks about the lilies of the field and tells us to live in the moment.
So when I say that we should approach the Bible expectantly, I’m not talking about a changed future. I’m talking about transforming the way we live in the present tense. Waiting for God is not passive. It is knowing that your life is different than you might otherwise have realized, because God is already a part of it. Waiting for God is living here and now as though you already know that עמנו אל—God is with us.
As I’ve told you in the first two installments, my basic outline for this sermon series is based on a book called Before You Open Your Bible. I liked the idea of the book better than the book itself, and I kinda disagreed when the author said that you should approach the Bible expectantly, because the author didn’t really acknowledge the fact that there’s lots of stuff in the Bible that most people won’t find all that helpful—in fact it’s downright tedious at times. “…[T]he entirety of the scriptures, including the Old Testament, is for you,” wrote Matt Smethurst, “to instruct you, to encourage you, to help you endure, to steel your heart with hope.”
I can agree with this, but I would want to be more honest with people. Yes, everything in the Bible is either an inspired account of how God interacts with the world, or an account of how God’s people lived before God. But the begats and the warfare and the laws that genuinely hurt people are not passages that we can expect to bring us the wholeness we seek. But we can still approach the Bible with anticipation, because to see who God’s people were, and relate it to what we’re living with today is to know the presence of God even in the midst of confusion and pain. God does not expect our knowledge to be perfect. But God wants us to know that we are not alone in our struggle to understand.
Speaking of struggling to understand, most people who read the scriptures are totally dependent on translations. I hope you know that the Bible was not written in English, and wasn’t even translated into English until relatively recently (considering the Old Testament is three thousand years old and the New Testament is two thousand). The first English version, by John Wickliffe, was translated from the Latin in the late 14th century. This translation was not authorized, and Wickliffe was burned at the stake for his stance on making the scriptures understandable to everyone.
The first English translation of the scriptures directly from the original Hebrew and Greek was made by a man named William Tyndale not long after Martin Luther translated the Bible into German (in the early 1500’s). Tyndale was also sentenced to be burned at the stake for going against the established church. (As a kindness, they strangled Tyndale while he was tied at the stake before burning his body.)
It wasn’t until 1611 that a fully legal English translation of the scriptures (authorized by King James) was published. This is why I often refer to the King James Bible as the Authorized Version—because that’s its official name. Though it was nearly ten years old when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, it was not the Bible they brought with them. That would’ve been the older Geneva Bible, translated by English-speaking exiles under the protection of John Calvin in—you guessed it—Geneva, Switzerland. Though this translation was probably better and easier to read than the King James Version, it was not authorized, nor was it trusted by the English government because of its footnotes. Hence the later Authorized Version.
We don’t usually remember the names of translators, but we do remember the first ones. And since William Tyndale was martyred after being the first to translate the Bible into English from the original languages, an American Bible publishing company is named after him. Tyndale House, located near Chicago, has made two contributions to the large number of contemporary English versions of the Bible. The first one was the Living Bible, which wasn’t a translation, but a paraphrase of the old King James Version into easy-to-read English. Paraphrases of the Bible are great for devotional use, but not really for Bible study, so I don’t really recommend the Living Bible.
When Tyndale House decided that the Living Bible needed an update, they took that extra step. Instead of paraphrasing an older English version, they translated the scriptures from the original languages. The result is not only easy to read, it’s also an excellent translation. I’ve spoken to you about it several times, and even based a sermon recently on how the New Living Translation rendered John 3:16.
Talking about this may have left you a bit confused—understandably so. In the pews we have the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a translation from around 1950. But the version I had usually been preaching from has been the New Revised Standard Version from the 1990’s—updated just a couple of years ago.
You may not have thought of this as problematic, but I did, and I discussed it with the elders last month. I asked if we might not replace the pew Bibles, not with the New Revised Standard Version, but with the New Living Translation. This way, those who want to can read along, seeing the exact same words that are coming from the person speaking at the front of the church. And we can print the page number of the scripture reading in the bulletin.
So the elders presented this proposal to the consistory and the consistory approved it, but we’d have to ask you all to pay for it, Bible-by-Bible. It might take a while, but I figured you’d come through. But remembering that his grandmother bought the pew Bibles for her church, Kingsley Charles offered to donate all of them.
When speaking about God’s mighty acts, Joel 1:3 says to Tell your children about it in the years to come, and let your children tell their children. Pass the story down from generation to generation. From father to daughter, from grandmother to grandson, from the elders in the church to the kids in Sunday School, the stories of God’s people are shared. Pew Bible or no pew Bible, in our words and in our actions, we make known how the God of the universe cares for us and loves us.
It's great to study the scriptures on our own, by ourselves, at our desks at home—or at our kitchen tables. But more than private devotional material, the Bible is intended to be read and studied in community. Even the most untrained Christian can share insights that a pastor with a master’s degree in divinity might not otherwise have seen. And certainly, the person who’s never been to seminary can learn from their pastor. And so we should approach the Word communally.
And the thing about Christianity is that we’re wrong if we think there can only be one constant interpretation of a passage of scripture. Because of fundamentalist influence, some of us are tempted to view the Word as a book printed in black and white. But, while we revere the Bible and take it more seriously than we do any other book, we know that the true Word of God is the One talked about in the first chapter of John’s gospel: In the beginning the Word already existed—the Word was with God and the Word was God.
It's a way of looking at Christianity that’s dependent on Greek philosophy, but even the Hebrew scriptures can help us understand what John is talking about. Just after the elder read from John, all of us joined in reading the 19th Psalm. Did you notice how that psalm opens with an exalted praise of how God speaks to us wordlessly through the movement of the heavens? And then, almost out of nowhere, the psalm switches to talking about the beauty of the written word. The transition to us can seem a bit jarring, but it shouldn’t be. Because in Jesus, Christians find the connection between the glory of God’s speech in the heavens and the accessibility of God’s word in the Bible. Neither fully encompasses who God is, but when the Word became human and made his home among us—that is, in the coming of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
And so we must approach the word incarnationally, knowing that the printed letters on the page point to the Christ, but that only in the Christ do we discover the perfect Word of God. The Bible tells us his words and actions, his ultimate sacrifice and victory. So even when we are reading the scriptures that were written centuries before the birth of Jesus, we are to look for him and understand what we’re reading in his light. And if two passages seem to disagree, it’s okay to ask ourselves which one better describes the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the unity of the Holy Spirit—because that is how we understand who God is.
And so that’s my three-sermon series on how to approach the Bible. First we learned to approach God’s Word prayerfully, humbly, and with open minds. Next we learned to approach it studiously, obediently, and joyfully. And today, to approach it first expectantly, and then in the knowledge that we understand it as part of a community, and lastly to keep in mind that as Christians, we must receive the word incarnationally—always remembering that the letters on the page guide us toward God, but are not themselves the Christ, the living Word through which God created the world and in whom the world exists. Remember this next Sunday when you stand and sing, World without end. Amen, amen.
—©2023 Sam Greening