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The Bible: Let It Breathe!

San Williams

October 20, 2013
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Our reading today begins with the phrase, “But as for you . . .”  The “you” who is being addressed is a young evangelist named Timothy.  While we don’t know much about Timothy, we do know that he was a child of the church, so to speak.  He came from a long line of faithful believers.  He had been tutored in the faith, first by his grandmother and then by his mother, Eunice.  He was a protégé of the Apostle Paul.  Having been well trained in the faith, instructed in the scriptures, and equipped for ministry, he was sent out to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But from the content of this second letter to Timothy, which is summarized in today’s reading, we surmise that something was bothering this early believer.  Now that he was out in the world, could it be that the teaching and instructions that he had accepted at face value as a child, he now as a young man, began to question? We don’t know the exact circumstances, but it’s clear that Timothy’s confidence was slipping.  His childhood convictions had begun to waver.

Well, this morning let’s expand the scope of “you” to include not only Timothy, but also everyone here today. Yes, we know that Paul, or whoever it was who wrote this letter to Timothy, believed that all scripture is inspired by God.   And we know what our church creeds say about the Bible.   It’s also true that every time a passage of scripture is read in worship, we claim it to be “The Word of the Lord.”  That’s all well and good.  But “as for you,” honestly now, what is your relationship with the sacred writings we know as the Bible?

In our reading, Timothy is encouraged to persist in the teachings he has received, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.  Or, as the old translation has it: “Preach the word…in season and out of season.” Do you agree that in many ways, the Bible itself is out of season today? Even in our churches, many people are equipped with little more than their childhood knowledge of the Bible.  Though most of us would claim to believe that the Bible is God’s word, not many actually read and study it.  The problem of Biblical illiteracy within the church is a common lament.  The Bible, it seems, is not in season.

A.J. Jacobs, who describes himself as a secular Jew, conducted a religious experiment and wrote about it in his book, A Year of Living Biblically.  For a calendar year, Jacobs lived by the rules and regulations and teaching of the Bible.  For example, in accordance with Deuteronomy 22, he had to ensure that his clothes did not mix wool and linen in them.  In accordance with Exodus 23, he removed the names of false gods from his vocabulary which meant that could not even use the words, “Wednesday” and Thursday,” because they honor the false gods Thor and Woden.  He allowed the side of his hair to grow uncut in accordance with Leviticus 19, and wore all white garments (Eccl 9:8).  Yes, it’s humorous, but Jacobs’ very literal attempt to live Biblically makes the Bible seem ridiculous, and out of step with modern life.

A few years ago, in an interview on the Today Show, the brilliant Shakespearian actor Ian McKellen said, “I have often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front proclaiming, ‘This is fiction.’”  In the minds of many, such statements serve to further undermine our confidence in the Bible as God’s inspired word.   The fact is, many people today, both in the church and in the wider culture, aren’t sure what to make of the Bible. Some, like Jacobs and McKellen, smother the life out of scripture with their absolute literalism.  Others wield the Bible as if it were a weapon. They use verses of scripture like bullets for their ideological hand guns, which they then fire away at their opponents.  But I ask again: “As for you”—is the Bible still the inspired word of God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness?

Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, wrote about what he called the “possibility of a second naiveté.”  The first naiveté refers to the interpretation of scripture, especially interpretations associated with childhood, when everything is taken at face value.  As young children, we accept uncritically what’s written.  But what happens when we learn how complex, messy, shocking, pre-modern, and contradictory some parts of the Bible really are?  Unfortunately, at that point, many people simply lose their faith in the Bible as God’s Word.  However, Ricoeur suggests that, beyond this critical stage, we can re-engage scripture with what he called a “second naiveté.”  He puts it this way: “Beyond the desert (Rational stage) of criticism, we wish to be called again.”  In other words, the Bible has the power to call us again, not to a pre-critical, childish naiveté, but to a mature, post-critical engagement with the Bible.

The theologian Karl Barth famously said, “I can’t read the Bible literally, because I take it far too seriously.”  I think Barth was emphasizing that the message of the Bible cannot be chained to a narrow literalism that chokes the life and freedom out of God’s word. Even though some literalist Christians have taken today’s reading from Timothy to claim inerrancy, our reading today doesn’t say that all of scripture is infallible.  Rather it claims that all scripture, while the product of human hands, is “inspired by God.”  Literally “God-breathed.”  In the Genesis creation account, God breathes life into humankind; so, too, God breathes life into his word.  We must not smother it.  We have to let it breathe.

Early in my ministry, I visited an elderly church member who had survived the trench warfare of World War I. When I asked how he endured such a terrible ordeal, he responded without hesitation:  “With the first two verses of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  Scripture has the power to breathe courage and hope into our lives during difficult times, during times of trial.

Several years ago, the nursing home called late one night to say that Jan’s mother was in her last hours.  Jan was out of town at the time.  I quickly dressed, picked up a Bible and went to my dear mother-in-law’s bedside.  For a couple of hours, I simply flipped through the Bible, reading various verses of scripture aloud. “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth…”  “If I live, I live to the Lord.  If I die, I die to the Lord, so then whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord’s…”  “Who can separate me from the love of God?..Can tribulation, or distress, or persecution? … No, for I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   I can’t know for sure whether Jan’s mother heard these words.  But I knew that she had lived by these scriptures for her whole life, and now, as her breathing slowed and finally stopped, God’s word, which endures forever, was breathing the promise of life eternal into her final moments.

At UPC, we read the Bible in worship, proclaim its message in sermon, study it in homes and classes, pray with it and sing it, because it has the power to animate our life together.  Our ministries of compassion and service come to life because God’s word to “do justice and love kindness” has been breathed into this congregation.  We come to Christ’s table and go out into the world as Christ’s disciples, because God’s word  “come unto me all who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest,” has breathed the very spirit of Christ into our community.

You see, the Bible, in all its complexity, is always pointing beyond itself.  There are parts with which we agree, parts with which we disagree, parts that we don’t understand, but in all its parts it points beyond the words on the page to the living presence of God’s grace and love. The Bible may be an earthen vessel, but it contains a divine treasure. It tells the story of God’s eternal quest to be with us and reconcile us; a story that finds fulfillment in the good news of Jesus Christ. And in that story, we find life and hope and courage for the living of our days and for the facing of our death.

Friends, we may well be living through a time when the Bible is out of season.  Without doubt, many people have found other teachings that are less challenging and more to their liking.  “But as for you,” as for this congregation, let us continue to hold fast that wisdom that has been handed down to us–not with uncritical eyes, or childish acceptance–but with a mature, questioning, open-minded faith, one that allows God’s Word to breathe God’s Spirit into our lives.