Sermons That Work

The Living, Active Word, Proper 16 (C) – 2013

August 25, 2013

In our reading from Hebrews today, the Word of God is described as “living” and “active.” That is, the Word of God is not dead and static. Because we tend to associate the Word of God primarily with the texts of the Bible, we tend to lose sight of its living and dynamic character.

And we tend to forget that the Bible is largely a collection of past utterances that came from God to address critical situations as they arose in history.

And we sometimes forget that the Word of God is also wholly contingent on what is happening right now, whenever “right now” happens to be. Therefore, God’s Word to Abram is vastly different from God’s word to Jeremiah, or to the psalmist, or to Jesus, or to whomever left us the epistle called Hebrews.

So one thing we get from reading the Bible is that the God of Israel is capable of addressing many different situations as they arise in many vastly different historical periods and places: Time and space shape the Word of God.

One thing that should also be obvious is the simple fact that there is no book, not even our Bible, that can contain all of what God might say. That is, the Bible surely does not contain all that God has said or might say.  Nor is it God’s only way of speaking to us.

The Bible does not address many topics we consider to be of grave importance. For example, neither the word “abortion” nor “homosexual” can be found in the Bible. All efforts to find out what God might think about these and similar issues depend on one’s reading or one’s interpretation of texts we think might be able to inform us.

But in the end, we are left with our interpretation of the texts over against the interpretations of others, to which we attempt to apply our own calculus in fashioning some sort of trump argument.

Which brings us to having to admit that when one wishes to enter God’s world through the texts of the Bible, we all do so with whatever tools and preconceived notions we bring along from our own experiences.

There can be no reading of the text that is not interpretive. Or to put it positively, all readings of the texts are interpretive. Because of who we are and the gifts God has given us, there can be no neutral readings of any of the texts.

The Bible itself, in fact, spends a lot of time interpreting and re-interpreting its own material. And the Bible gives a lot of equal time to dramatically competing notions of what it means to be a people of God.

To begin with, then, one needs a firm grasp of all the Biblical landscape, with particular attention paid to a few core narratives: exodus, exile and Jesus’ life/death/resurrection.

It can be argued that all the Bible reflects on these core narratives – exodus, exile and Jesus – with emphasis upon the indisputable fact that nearly all the New Testament looks at Jesus through the dual lens of exodus and exile. It is no coincidence, for instance, that in our liturgy we describe Jesus as “our Passover.”

Without an intimate knowledge of what the Passover story is  – slavery, exodus, wilderness, land of promise – we end up having no idea what we mean when we call Jesus “our Passover.”

To put this another way, the entire Jesus saga engages the reader in a vast interpretation and re-casting and reinterpretation of both the exodus and exile narratives.

So in Hebrews today, a contrast is being made between how God was experienced at Mount Sinai during the wilderness sojourn of the exodus and how God is experienced in Jesus.

In its conclusion, our posture before God is to remain one of thanksgiving, eucharistia, reverence, fear and awe, because our God is “a consuming fire.” A fire that Jesus hopes to kindle across the whole earth!

The text in Hebrews depends on our knowledge of all that happened in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy for it to make any sense at all to us today. Just as the word that comes to Jeremiah as a young boy eventually uses the exodus saga to announce a new exodus from the exile in Babylon.

While in exile and coming out of exile and re-settling Jerusalem, the biblical texts carry on an extended sort of debate about whether or not God’s Israel should bar the gates and become an exclusive community, or open the gates and become a blessing to all the nations of the earth as God had promised all the way back to our brother Abraham.

That is, should we become an exclusive or inclusive community? Should we remain particular in who we are? Or should we become more universal in our acceptance of others?

There are whole books of the Bible that argue the need to be exclusive and pure, and whole books that argue the need to be inclusive, tolerant and universal in the acceptance of others. There are whole books devoted to strict adherence to the purity codes of Leviticus, and whole books devoted to reaching beyond custom and law in an attitude of compassion and justice to accept all people of all backgrounds into the community of God’s people.

To see Jesus’ perspective, as we do today in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, step outside the limitations of tradition and beyond the customs of the Sabbath and the purity code. Jesus heals a woman, a woman who does not call out to him, but one whom he sees and calls to himself, a woman who, because she was a woman and because she was crippled, would not be allowed into the synagogue, let alone inside the gates of the city in all likelihood. This seems to suggest which side of the exclusive-inclusive debate Jesus lived on.

Surely it does not take too much interpretative skill on our parts to see that Jesus shatters the status quo to announce a new way of doing God’s business.

In Jesus we see that God’s Word is alive and active, not at all dead and static. Jesus is seen to be reinterpreting the Bible and the biblical tradition. Jesus, God’s Word, is alive and active.

We cannot even begin to know the significance of this story without intimate knowledge of the exodus saga, the Abraham saga, the prophetic literature calling us to care for those in need, the life and the customs of Israel in the first century. That Jesus would touch an unclean woman in public is remarkable, and causes division amongst the community of God’s people. Note how those who are angry do not address Jesus directly, but rather spew their indignation at the woman and the rest of the congregation. Some things never change!

We all want to know what the Bible says. But are we willing to put in the time necessary to become familiar with all its texts, its various histories and points of view? What it addresses and what it does not? All the personalities represented, and the possibilities and promises sometimes merely hinted at?

Are we willing to let the Bible, the Word of God, have its way with us rather than our trying to domesticate it to our own needs and desires?

Are we able to step back from a verse or a few words and see them in the larger context of an entire book, or the whole Bible?

Are we comfortable with a Word that is living and active?

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Christopher Sikkema


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