the Bible and the world (even the news)

John R. W. Stott wrote what in my lifetime was considered a classic, or at least a must read book for those training for the ministry, entitled, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. The idea, written in 1982, is something like for a pastor to be effective in his sermon preparation, he needs to have both a Bible (certainly with necessary helps when preparing the sermon) in hand, and a newspaper. Stott and colleagues used to go to landmark films together, and then discuss their meaning afterward.

I think Stott gets to a most important point. I may want to simply escape the world, and live in some kind of monastic order, thinking that I would actually do the world more good to do so. While there’s a grain of truth in that, there’s also, I think, some error. I live in the real world which has an overwhelming influence over all of us in all sorts of ways, most of which we take for granted, and are hardly even aware of. I think of the Modernist Enlightenment heritage of my own country, the United States. And just one result of that is an entrenched individualism which at best means we each take responsibility, and at worst that we’re not our brother’s keeper. Another strong emphasis coming out of that is the falsity which again has a grain of truth, but with what ends up a poisonous admixture of error, that all the world needs to overcome “evil” is simply knowledge. We need more education, another staple of the Enlightenment.

We don’t live in a vacuum in which it’s just us and God. We live in a real world, with definite issues, which can end up defining or at least impacting individuals and societies. And at the same time, we have a word from God, word meaning written scripture, and preeminently meaning the gospel pointing to God’s final Word, Jesus. That word speaks into our lives, but into them where we live, no less. The word is often called “timeless,” but a better word for it might be timely. It initially spoke into a specific time, place and culture. And it continues to speak to every generation and place. It is the ancient word, to be sure, but at the same time God’s word for the world.

And so we need to be those who major on listening to God through his word. And that word will speak into the world in which we live. Even as it spoke into the world of its original recipients. God’s word in Jesus bringing in God’s grace and kingdom in him, yes right into the world in which we live. Living in “this present evil age” as we look forward to the world to come when Jesus returns and heaven and earth are made one.

a living faith

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

Hebrews 11

Philosophical Nominalism is said to have plagued part of the church before and into the Reformation and beyond. Simplistically stated, it’s the idea that reality is in the words themselves apart from that actual realities themselves. And ends up actually putting a kibosh on the realities, even questioning their existence. This is said of those whose faith puts a priority on words, and precisely on the written word instead of the Word himself, Jesus. Those are the ones who deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist (Holy Communion) and count it merely symbolical.

Suffice it to say that I consider such a charge mistaken. Faith is in God’s word counting on the realities themselves to be true. So that we base our entire lives on them. One might partake of Holy Communion every week, believing that in doing so, they are partaking of the body and blood of Christ, of Christ himself. Others might partake of it once and awhile, and see it as only a rememberance, the wafers and juice being symbolic. But if they have faith, they will receive and even now have the result of what that ordinance represents, a new life in Jesus.

According to the passage, the beginning of which is quoted above, faith is the difference maker. And it comes down to faith in God’s word, ultimately God’s word about Jesus, faith in Jesus himself. That’s what the Bible clearly calls us to again and again. Specifically the Final/New Testament.

What we all need– regardless of our church, and where it stands on some of the theological debates and differences, and where we might stand on such issues– we all need faith. A living faith which takes God at his word, and receives Christ as God’s final Word. A faith which enables us to hear and obey that word, remembering the Pioneer and Perfecter of such faith, Jesus himself. Our confidence and assurance ultimately resting in him.

what keeps us going

There are many ways to become discouraged, and to essentially quit. Fear paralyzes and debilitates. Feeling overwhelmed over difficult challenges in life in which there is some inevitable stumbling. Or not measuring up to some self-imposed standard which one may have imbibed through their upbringing, experiences, ideas floating around, or a combination of a number of factors.

What keeps me going is the faith and hope and love in Jesus. To boil it down, for me, the written word and the Word himself, Jesus. I accept something of the Real Presence in Holy Communion, but I believe something of that is given to us in scripture, as well. So whether I feel like it or not, and I might say especially when I don’t feel like it, I keep going back to scripture, and seek to read it all in the light of Jesus who brings us into the life of God.

For me this isn’t a nice thing I do, or something I find enjoyable so that I do it, though there’s some truth in both. For me it’s a matter of life and death. I have to do this, but I want to want to do it as well. My want is good enough for a number of reasons, but essentially so because of God’s grace, that I just keep on doing it. When I wane in doing so, it’s not long until I feel and see the consequences.

In this is a matter of not just surviving, but in Jesus experiencing a sense of thriving. It seems like faith is always on that edge, the precipice of on the one hand falling into the abyss, though for us in Jesus, underneath are the everlasting arms. And on the other hand, finding ourselves in a kind of paradise right in the midst of a broken down world. That is known even in what can be the aloneness of life. I remember when Paul said that everyone had abandoned him, but that the Lord stood with him so that the proclamation of the gospel would go forward. God’s presence should be even more palpable, or perhaps better put, steadily manifest and tangible amongst God’s people, those in Jesus in his body, the church.

So for me, I carry on for a number of reasons I’m sure, all through God’s grace and working in Jesus. But essentially due to the written word which leads us to the Word, Jesus, Jesus actually somehow mediating that word to us through his fulfillment of it, all of this in and through the Spirit. That last sentence is breaking boundaries I ordinarily don’t believe in crossing. I am moving into what is too high for me, too much to understand. Mystery. Yet we know that it’s both the word then the Word, and the Word then the word. All of this, of course, in and through Jesus.

does God do a good job being God? (does our understanding of God measure up?)

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11

It’s common nowadays to question the God of the Bible in more ways than one. And as N. T. Wright points out, when people use the word God, they don’t at all mean the same being as much as they once did. For a good many people God just seems to fall short both in the Bible, and in life. Anyone who reads the entire Bible will understand that the Bible itself is about real life with most of its characters flawed, and even in the case of one remarkably unflawed character, Daniel, he includes himself in his confession to God of Israel’s sins.

But what about God in these pages? We find a God who again in the words of N. T. Wright is both passionate and compassionate. A God who takes seriously human decisions, and lets the weight of them (even if not fully), good or bad fall into place with the consequences. And yet we also see the God who created all things work to restore all things in a redemption and salvation which brings in nothing short of a new creation. And God does that through humans, specifically through choosing Israel to be his light to the world, coming to culmination and complete fulfillment in Jesus.

There is no question that at times in both the Bible and in life we can’t begin to make sense of at least parts of it, sometimes very large parts which can impact individuals and nations. Of course one would have to see the entire story and really get inside the story to really understand and appreciate what is going on. We often don’t have that vantage point. With scripture, we can read from cover to cover, from Genesis through Revelation and get the gist at least of the story in it, in all its complexity and beauty. If we want an easy read, and easy answer, it’s not there. But such is life. Yet with the faith of a little child, we can enter in, and begin to understand the account of a loving Father in and through Jesus.

As the doxology in the Romans passage quoted above suggests, we can’t follow God completely, it’s not like we can retrace God’s steps or fully comprehend what God is up to especially in the affairs of the world as the sovereign ruler. But the point in that passage is God’s dealings with his covenant people Israel in terms of the gospel and the change that brought. Romans 9 through 11 talk about that, and it’s an important read. And we can understand quite a bit, and at least what is essential for us to understand from that reading. But we do best in the end to echo the doxology which follows it, acknowledging that God is God and his working is beyond us. Yet at the same time we need to keep looking to God’s final word (Hebrews 2) Jesus, who himself is the essence of God, even as a human, of course one with the Father in the Triunity of God.

No, we don’t understand God all that well, except for what God has revealed to us, and actually it is quite a lot in scripture. But we need the Spirit of God to help us really begin to understand God beyond concepts, even if those concepts contain truth and avoid error. We need what begins as an acquaintance into a full relationship with God in and through Jesus. The God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And the God who is love (1 John). We need to learn to not only accept the revelation of God in Jesus, but to learn by faith to rest in that God who comes to us in Jesus.

read the entire Bible (and keep reading it again and again)

Read or listen to the Bible, or both. Read it slowly, read it in large chunks. If it is God’s word written, it should begin to make an impact on our lives. And get into a church which either reads all of the Bible over time (through a lectionary), or preaches/teaches the Bible well (like the church we’ve been taking our grandkids to), preferably both.

Start children slowly, but wisely through the word, through the story and message of scripture. I think Our Daily Bread for Kids (and here) is a good place to start. Of course with the littlest ones, we’ll need materials or practices appropriate for them. Our Daily Bread for Kids Sunday School Songs (and here, scroll down) starts getting them to listen and eventually sing, which is good, even for the youngest age, I think.

The point is, we need to be in the word, day and night. And that word leads us to the Word, Jesus, the fulfillment of everything, bringing all things to their ultimate goal in God’s grace and kingdom come in him.

Why? Not for any other reason, other than the end itself. This is not a means to be a better American, a better world citizen, a better whatever, even though those things might be good in their proper place. No, it’s about being a true Christian, a follower of Christ, whatever the result of that may be.

Begin small, and keep at it. Bible Gateway is a good place to start to look for a Bible translation which might fit you. My preferred translation is the New International Version (NIV) which I think achieves an excellent balance between up to date scholarship, accuracy and readability. My second preference might be the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) , but there’s many other good Bible translations to choose from (again, see Bible Gateway).

I can’t end better than from the psalmist, but with the additional thought from scripture that this light is not just for ourselves, but for the world, in and through Jesus.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.

Psalm 119:105

hold that thought

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

Isaiah 40

There are all kinds of thoughts that come our way in the course of a day, for ill and for good, and everything in between. We are often caught up and captured in such thoughts. Even consumed by them.

But there is only one word which endures, when all the rest will be gone. And that is the word of God, scripture itself, which points us to the Word of God, Jesus himself.

We need to be in the word day in and day out, year in and year out. It doesn’t matter whether we’re always “getting” what we’re reading. We need to keep at it; the Spirit will help us. Of course a big part of how this happens is through the church which indeed has a special place in God and in God’s working: nothing less than in Christ, as Christ’s body by the Spirit. So that is important if we’re really going to be adherents of God’s word, of scripture.

We have to make other things secondary to our intake of God’s word. Of course I’m not referring to the necessities we must do daily. But when all is said and done, we live by one word, the word from God.

…man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 8

Many thoughts will come to us, and they have varying degrees of significance. But the promise of good both for this life and for the life to come is found in one source: God’s word in scripture, and in Jesus. We live by that word, and die with it in hand, in and through Jesus.

 

Jesus’s word which only faith accepts

Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.

John 3

Jesus’s words to a religious leader of Israel still ring loud and clear and true for us today. Jesus spoke a word in words, from the Father. That is why they have a telling effect for all who believe. Jesus preached the gospel because he preached himself. He did it out of the utmost humility, having humbled himself in the Incarnation by becoming one of us, and taking that much further to the death of the cross for the worst from and of us. Jesus himself was a word from the Father, indeed the final Word, revealing God to us, “full of unfailing love and faithfulness” (John 1:14).

This is the one word we in Jesus should speak, as well as by grace live and if need be die for. No other words, as important as they are, are on that same level. Though through that word, those lesser words might be shaped and perhaps could begin to share in its life and purpose, either directly or indirectly.

The world spoken by Jesus of Jesus is the word by which we in Jesus live, and which we should share with others, so that they too may come into this new life. The life who entered this world as a little baby boy so many years ago.