Sermons That Work

As It Says in Today’s Reading…, Proper 15 (C) – 2007

August 19, 2007

As it says in today’s reading from Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Or as it says in the Sanhedrin: “As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.”

Perhaps this Talmudic interpretation of Jeremiah gives us some purchase on Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire upon the earth. … Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

We might naturally wonder just what these statements from Jeremiah and Luke have to do with one another. We read them out loud and conclude, “The Word of the Lord,” after which we dutifully respond, “Thanks be to God.”

Just why do we give thanks for fire, division, and splintering rock?

In a time when all kinds of people both inside and outside the church are showing great interest in “The Word of the Lord,” perhaps it is worth stopping and looking at just what that is. What is the word of the Lord?

The very first time that phrase is used in the Bible is in Genesis in the Abraham saga from which we have heard recently. The operant phrase in the Hebrew Bible is “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” It’s all over the Old Testament, mentioned several hundred times. The word of the Lord comes to people in and out of visions – which makes it sound as if the word of the Lord is difficult to pin down, for it is somehow in transit; it is always coming to us. And as it comes to us born on the winds of the Spirit, Jesus says in John 3 :“You do not know whence it comes or wither it goes.”

Curiously, the word of the Lord always seems to come to the prophets in the form of poetry. The words of the prophets and Psalms and Revelation may be the most carefully hammered-out words in the Bible. Writing poetry takes time and meticulous working and reworking of the text to get it just right. Poetry is also open to endless meanings and interpretations.

The rest of the Bible tends to be an eclectic collection of sayings and sagas endlessly told and retold in oral tradition and variously remembered in written traditions. It’s then later retold and edited by so-called Biblical witnesses.

For example, the book of Revelation is popularly believed to be the dream or vision of someone named John– some suggest of John of Patmos – or a direct revelation from God. It turns out that of the 400 some odd verses in Revelation, nearly 300 are direct quotations or references to stories in the Old Testament. That is, someone has carefully re-edited and re-worked existing Biblical material with some added connective tissue.
Then you get things like the Noah’s ark saga. In Genesis 6 we read that God instructs Noah to take two of each animal, one male and one female. Then in Genesis 7 it is suddenly seven pairs of each animal. So which is it? Modern scientific folks that we are, we want to know which verse is “right.”

We quickly see how difficult it can be to read the Bible literally. And when it comes to poetry and visions, it becomes even more demanding.

When God’s word is like a hammer on a rock, splitting it into many pieces, those pieces render many different meanings. This makes us uncomfortable.

And that seems to be what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. Jesus says he did not come to bring peace to the earth but rather division. Depending upon whether we choose to get with the Good News of Jesus or not will leave us divided, redistributed. Jesus does not come literally to divide, it will just be a natural consequence of his coming and the subsequent distributing of God’s spirit among us.

The word of the Lord comes to us. We know not whence it comes or wither it goes – where it will find us and where it will take us. When the word of the Lord comes to us, we are called to do something new, be something new, to see all things new. We are called to co-create with the God who says, “Let there be … .”

The word of the Lord in the person of Jesus is an invitation to stand in the midst of the fire of God’s utterances throughout time.

The word of the Lord is like a hammer on a rock, reverberating throughout the ages with endless readings, endless tellings and re-tellings, endless remembrances. From age to age each verse, each word, each letter gets re-examined, re-thought, re-told, newly uttered, newly acted upon.

Looking at the world, our country, and even our church, one can readily see the kinds of divisions Jesus describes. Is it any wonder that Jesus wants to kindle the fire of God’s word?

Is it any wonder that God’s word wants to be a hammer to break our rocks – the rocks of our flinty, fossilized, and rigid beliefs, understandings, and misunderstandings – into little pieces so as to make them all new?

As it says in Hebrews, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account.”

Are we ready to be set on fire? Are we ready to let our current understandings be smashed to pieces? Are we ready for the word of the Lord? When we say, “Thanks be to God,” we are saying, “Yes, Lord, send your word to me here and take me someplace utterly new! Give me your fire, and splinter my rock. Bring me closer to the life of your Kingdom.”

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Christopher Sikkema