Calvin’s Lamp and the Light *

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Psalm 119: 1-8, 105-112

So, I picked up this book on everyday Biblical literacy at Ollie’s Discount store… which is “the essential guide to Biblical Allusions in Art, Literature and life”… and it looks good… a sort of contemporary Bible dictionary. I’m always looking for fresh ways to interpret scripture in our modern world and to you.

The author, in the foreword reminds us, “In our culture, you can’t get away from the Bible, even if you wanted to. Its ideas, phrases, people and events are so embedded in our lives that even people who have never opened a Bible have some biblical images in their minds, without even knowing it…In every day speech, we refer to someone being “old as Methuselah,” of being a “Judas,” a woman as wicked as Jezebel, of a ‘doubting Thomas.” We talk of someone who doesn’t “suffer fools gladly,” of a dependable person who is the “salt of the earth,” of doing a “labor of love,” practicing what you preach,” “going the extra mile,” and “risking our necks”-just a handful of phrases from the Bible… A radio personality referred to Anna Nicole Smith as an “Abishag,” which at least a few listeners knew referred to a young attractive woman who was brought in to “warm the bones” of King David in his old age-in other words, (hot) young babe and old codger sharing a bed…”

The author says… “You can appreciate a movie like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” if you know a little more about the real ark in the Bible… the aim of this book is to give you a painless, entertaining education in the people, places, ideas, events and phrases of the Bible…”

In other words, one reason to read the Bible… to learn about the ancient words, names, ideas… is to help you appreciate and understand our culture much better. Music, movie and literature will be more enjoyable.

Which is a worthy enough reason, I guess… for most… and I guess John Calvin would be okay with that… but he would say there are more reasons to read and learn your Bible…

He had noticed for instance that in his congregation there was the neglect of Scripture… and Biblical ignorance had led many people to believe anything their pastors told them… often leading them to superstitious worship of God…leading to false belief… Biblical ignorance leaves you spiritually vulnerable. That’s one reason to read your Bible…

But to me the main reason to read the Bible, to paraphrase the Psalm which we often use as a prayer of illumination- is simple: God has given us this word… to be a lamp to our feet and a light unto our path… God has no desire for us to live our lives in the dark…

I think of when I go to bed at night…. Late. Sharon is already there… the light is out… and I sort of feel my way through the dark bedroom… to the bathroom… and I can make it… and I’ve sort of memorized the path… but it is so much easier when she leaves the light on in the Bathroom… and I can find my way…

God never intended for us to live in darkness sort of feeling our way through life… God has provided a lamp to light our way… God’s word. The scripture.
“Thy word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path”

So it was the Scriptures were central to the life of Calvin and all Protestant Christians. It became their lamp and their light. More than that, it became the number one authority… the prime authority. Scripture alone… is how the Reformers said it-taught it.

That may not sound that controversial to you (anyone want to vote against that?) … but in Calvin’s days… those were fighting words. One of the biggest church fights in history broke out over those words.

The Scriptures were considered by almost everyone in 16th century Europe, both Protestant and Catholic, to be inspired by God and authoritative. (no argument there). But the reformers went a step further, arguing not only that Scripture is authoritative, but that it is the preeminent authority in the church concerning all matters of faith and practice.

While the Catholic Church maintained that Scripture and the teachings of the church were equal authorities, the Reformers said, “No! Scripture alone” is the number one authority. The supreme court in matters of faith and practice. The constitution the church is founded upon scripture… not humans.

So what? Well, the people in that day will tell us, “so what.” When your church is built on tradition… centuries old tradition… where the supreme court in matters of faith is the hierarchy of leadership, with the Pope as the one who is the supreme and final authority… these are fighting words. Luther laid it on the line when he said, “a simple lay man armed with the Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.”

For Calvin and the other Protestants the issue was clear. The church should not be exercising authority over the Bible; rather, the Bible should be exercising authority over the church. The Word of God… revealed in Jesus Christ most clearly and written in Scripture were to be the lamp to the feet and the light to the path of Christians. Not human authorities… not even church authorities.

In a society where bishops wielded enormous power, in a culture where most people thought the celebration of the Mass put one directly in touch with God, arguing that the Bible does not support the consecration of bishops or that it rejects the theology of the Mass was nothing short of revolutionary. (Think of what has happened in Iran-a religious revolution… there were similar marches in the streets in the battle over the role of Scripture…) If the way you read the Bible challenged the church and the political order… and all those authorities you had learned to count on since you were a child… what would be next? 1.

Scripture alone… revolutionary words… fighting words… but words, the reformers thought, were the way God intended to guide us and lead us in our lives.

Perhaps they got this partly from the way they saw how Scripture was the prime guide in Jesus’ life. When Jesus debated the Scribes, the priests and even the high priests… he used scripture as the foundation of his argument.

Perhaps you noticed the role scripture played in the story of the temptation. In that story did you see how even the devil can quote scripture? When he sees Jesus is guided by scripture, he uses that as a tool to tempt him to jump off the temple to test God…
“it is written (Jesus) “he will command his angels concerning you… on their hands they will bear you up”… [the Bible says it right here Jesus]

But Jesus was grounded in Scripture enough to know a text taken out of context when he saw it… and quotes right back from Deuteronomy, “Do not
put the Lord your God to the test”…

One of the things that saved Jesus in temptation was his knowledge of scripture along with his use of the scripture in his life as a lamp to his feet and a light to his path. Calvin certainly saw it that way. He grounded his life and his church in scripture. He wrote commentaries on almost every book in the NT and several OT commentaries. He did not write a commentary on the Book of Revelation.  He spent much of his life reading, rereading, studying and wrestling with Biblical texts. Contemplating the texts. Because Calvin fervently believed that the texts of both the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God written, he was convinced the Bible offers a clear message about who God is and what God would have us believe and do. That alone was reason enough to read the bible.

In other words, he immersed his life in Scripture because he believed that the Word of God was a lamp to our feet and a light to our path as we walk on the journey of our lives.

In many ways, I see that understanding still at work today.Years ago, Amy Grant sang about it and sold millions of copies of this song:
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path…
When I feel afraid, think I’ve lost my way, still you’re there right beside me.
And nothing will I fear as long as you are near. Please be near me the end’
Thy word…”

As many of you know, I have been on facebook for a few months.

Do you know the thing I do that receives the most response on facebook of all the postings… the most comments? A friend of mine who does the same thing in his congregation in Tampa has had the same response. Of all the applications we both post on facebook… the one that receives the most comments is this: the daily scripture application or posting. Every day I post a verse or two of scripture. Then I often hear from someone who says, “that was just what I needed today”… or when they speak to me, they say, “thank you for posting those scriptures”. I’ve been surprised to be honest… but grateful.

I think Calvin would be glad to hear it. Because what people are saying in their own way… is that I am grateful when you post a word from God… something more eternal than most of what I’m reading on facebook… I’m grateful for in some way… at least for that day… it has been a lamp and a light in what you would agree can be a dark and difficult world… enough light to take a step at a time…

It is a gift. A gift from God for God’s children… a lamp and a light to our path… so that we can walk in the Light of the Lord, each day-every day- for all the days of our lives. Amen.

1. Many ideas in this part of the sermon on S cripture Alone comes from William Stacy Johnson’s book, John Calvin, Reformer for the 21st Century, p 31ff