Sermons That Work

There Is a Story, Perhaps Apocryphal…, Proper 28 (C) – 2004

November 14, 2004

A book of remembrance was written before him… Malachi 3:16

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an American professor of philosophy doing research in the Asia. Deeply involved in her work, she asks a Japanese colleague to explain some of the complexities of Shinto and Buddhist belief. The Japanese scholar at first demurs. But the American persists; and finally the scholar does her best, thoughtfully if a bit haltingly, to explain the point in question.

The American professor listens carefully, takes copious notes, and then thanks her colleague profusely. “Now I understand perfectly,” she says, leaning back in her chair. The Japanese appears puzzled. “Really?” she asks quizzically, “You understand now?” “Yes,” replies the American, “I have pondered this question for years, but your explanation has at last made it absolutely clear to me.” “Hmmm,” says her Japanese counterpart with a troubled look on her face, “Then I must not have explained it properly.”

Studying Scripture can sometimes be like that. No amount of explaining can exhaust its message. We may turn to commentaries and treatises, but no professor or other scholar can give Scripture its full meaning for all time and all places. The more we learn of it, the more questions we have. Though the mysteries that the Bible teaches become more intelligible with study and prayer, they remain always, at some level, incomprehensible. We never fathom them fully.

Of course the temptation is always there to approach Scripture with the same matter-of-fact attitude with which we approach completing a crossword puzzle or solving a riddle. If the Bible does have secrets, surely we need only find the key or special cipher that unlocks the message. Fortunes have been made by those claiming to divulge covert or hidden codes within the biblical text that will bring enlightenment and superior knowledge. This is nothing new.

Nor is it surprising. We all prefer clarity. We want to know where we stand. Transparency and precision are important values in our daily life and relations. Ambiguity annoys us. In business, we go for the bottom line. In science and technology, we ask if it works. In politics, we gravitate to the candidate who seems best able to articulate clear goals and how to achieve them. Even in our closest relationships, we find ourselves demanding unambiguous answers: Do you really love me? Yes or no?

It makes sense that we should want to take hold of Scripture in the same way, make it our possession, squeeze out its truth, and make it say yes or no. Did not our Reformation forebears fight to make the Bible accessible to everyone, including us? So, what is Scripture’s chapter and verse bottom-line? Malachi 3:13—4:2a, 5-6, for instance, our first reading today. The citation sounds almost mathematical in its precision. What could be more clear-cut?

But it is, in fact, not that simple. There are no cookie-cutter answers in Scripture’s idiom, for it is language like no other. It is neither puzzle nor riddle. By faith, we know it to be the word of God. Yet we also know Scripture was written long ago by a multitude of human authors over many centuries and in languages and cultures far different from our own. It has been parsed and studied throughout the ages, as has no other document in world history. Probably more volumes have been written about Scripture’s nearly 800,000 words than about any other matter. Books have even been written about books that have been written about the Bible. So you would think that by now the full meaning of Scripture should be plain for all to see. Yet we plainly see that it is not so.

The prophet, Malachi, in our first reading today, has the Lord taking note and listening, as “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name.” “A book of remembrance.” This is perhaps as apt a definition of Scripture itself as we shall find. Each time we read Scripture we recall the wondrous things that the Lord has done among those who have revered him. And, the remembrance of these things brings promise and reassurance to that which we are today, translating our own seemingly humdrum human experience into an astonishing story of God’s providence and grace in our own life and times. The Bible changes us in the here and now, and changes who we are to become. We cannot own it or manipulate it to our own ends. Scripture itself lays claim to us.

Heraclites, an ancient Greek philosopher, declared that you cannot step into the same river twice. Each reading of God’s word is also new. No one reads Scripture the same way twice. Scripture, this book of remembrance, is paradoxically not about the past. What we most remember as we read it is the promise to come. It is not surprising that there are no easy or pat answers. It is not surprising that God’s word never fails to challenge and renew us. The Bible is still being written upon our hearts. It is after all a book about us. It is our spiritual biography as the people of God.

In our collect, or opening prayer, we today call upon the Lord “who caused all Scriptures to be written for our learning.” We pray that we might “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” Christians have been hard at work on this project for centuries, seeking to know the true meaning of God’s word in each new generation. A number of recent books, for example, highlight the story of the beloved King James’ Bible, and how it came to be. They emphasize the years of work that the king’s scholars devoted to producing not only a translation of Scripture but a magnificent work of English literature as well. But not even they could completely exhaust the meaning of God’s word for all time. As today’s collect implies, understanding Scripture does indeed require hearing, reading, and learning on the part of each of us. And while you are at it, bring a yellow highlighter. It will come in handy for marking the way.

Only after much study and prayer can we hope to inwardly digest Scripture’s message and be nourished by it. For Scripture is not unlike the manna of old described in the Bible itself. It is food for the journey, sustenance for the soul. Each day it is there for us to take once again. Everyday it is enough, yet is never exhausted. If not gathered, consumed, and inwardly digested, its words become stale and useless to us, jottings in a dusty old book on a shelf, incapable of providing nourishment. But hear Scripture, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest its words each day, and you shall never go hungry. If you understand that, you know the real meaning of Scripture.


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Christopher Sikkema


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