The Bible: What Kind of Book IS This?

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Psalm 1
Jeremiah 18:1-11

Today is Rally Day when we kick off our new year of Christian education or formation with classes and youth group starting again. As part of that celebration we are handing out Bibles to our 2nd graders… and to our confirmands– we’ve been handing out Bibles for years… I received a couple of Bibles myself when I was growing up in church.

The reason we give Bibles, of course, is that the Bible is our source material… Other books may come and go for Christians—but this one remains.

So today, I want to ask a very basic question raised by the American Trappist Monk Thomas Merton in a wonderful little book called, “Opening the Bible”. The first question he asks is this: “What kind of book is this?”

Have you ever bothered to ask that question? I’ve been thinking about it and have come up with several answers.

If we are honest, I think one of the first answers to the question is that this is a confusing book.  The Sunday School class I attend is about to study a book called, The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Brueggemann. But of course for many people, the Bible doesn’t make sense.

More than one person has started and stopped reading the Bible because it is so confusing. You are doing great through Genesis… maybe get through Exodus… but then comes Leviticus, Numbers… and if you manage to get through that—you read a long history… with more kings than you can count.

Adding to the confusion is that this is a story from another time, place and culture. That is confusing. Most of us need help from scholars and commentators.

Adding to the confusion again is the fact that the Bible, as we have it now, came to us over a long period of time.

When the Psalmist refers to the torah— the instructions—teachings—he is referring to the earlier books of the Old Testament… but not to the prophets. Jeremiah, same thing.

By the time of Jesus, a Greek version of the Old Testament was in popular use. [He did not speak the King James English you know)  We see Jesus quote Isaiah more than any other prophet. He uses the Psalms. He knows the Torah. Those were his scriptures.

By the end of the 1st century, the gospels and some of the letters of Paul were seen to have some authority… but it wasn’t until around 300 AD that Christians could agree on something like our Bible as Holy Scripture. Even then, people like Martin Luther would later recommend that some books be removed. The Reformers removed several books of the Bible of their time that now make up the Apocrypha in the Catholic Bible.

What kind of book is this? It is confusing and apparently a very dynamic book.

It is also a book that is dangerous in the wrong hands and wrong heart. In the film the Butler, a young Cecil Gaines watches his father get shot to death on a Georgia plantation. The man who killed his father quotes scripture about the Biblical right to whip slaves as his defense. No surprise.

The Devil quotes scripture to tempt Jesus. Jesus is in a constant debate with the Scribes and Pharisees over scripture. Jesus sees them using Scripture to oppress and hurt the most vulnerable. They used Scripture to challenge and condemn Jesus.

Over the years, Christians have used the Bible to drive the crusades, to support slavery, and it still drives people to hate.

Some Christians (anyone remember Jim Bakker) have used the Bible to justify their greed at the expense of others.

The Bible can be a dangerous book in the wrong hands and the wrong heart.

And yet, within the Bible there are the correctives. From the prophets and most of all Jesus who we say is the Word – made flesh.

What kind of book is this?

It is a confusing, dangerous… and yet… a wonderful book that is the source material of our life and faith.  It is a book rich in wisdom ready to offer us life… ready to lead us to the one who made us, who knows us by name, to the one who is eager to speak to us and to be in a dynamic and transforming relationship with us.

James Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC describes the Bible this way:

“Many Christians handle the Bible as if it were a Ouija board, or an answer book, chock-full of orders and commands from on high. But as you read the Bible, you find stories: earthy, humorous, even bizarre stories. There is love poetry, and there are plenty of songs; there are pithy little sayings, and some longer sermons. We see people trying to figure God out and struggling to get along with their neighbors…

The pictures, colors and shapes of the Bible, if we look carefully enough, are the greatest images we have in our exploration of God.  What all those stories and pictures and colors and shapes add up to is something like a great mural. Up close you see various details. From a distance you see the big picture- an inviting image of life in the world with God.

Instead of an answer book, the Bible is more like a good pair of corrective lenses; we have this astigmatism, spiritually speaking, and the Bible corrects our vision, focusing our eyes…”[1]

Jeremiah as he delivers the word of the Lord sees this word as a corrective for God’s people… The word of the Lord spoken to Jeremiah is the way that God sought to speak, to change and transform his children. So when we are not being who God created us to be in God’s image… the word comes to us to challenge us, to change us and to remold us. He is the potter and we are the clay… by God’s grace—even when we stray—God wants to remold us in order to help us amend our ways and get us back on the right path.

The word of grace is that the clay had not hardened and was still moldable… so are we. God can work with that!

The word of God for Jeremiah— as hard as it was to hear—was a word of hope as God would not give up on his people as the Lord gave them another chance to follow his way…

For the the writer of Psalm 1, the way of the Lord was to be found in the Scriptures:

Oh how he loved the Torah. He loved the Torah because the Torah led him to God—who was the source of his life. He loves the instructions of the Lord, they bring him great joy… they make him (to quote Phil in Duck Dynasty( Happy, Happy, Happy- why? – Because as he meditates (notice he doesn’t say, dissect or try to win an argument with—but meditates) on the law of the Lord… those instructions are like trees planted by streams of water… they are very source of his life.

What kind of book is the Bible? Here is what I think.

The Bible is a sacred book—because in this book, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we have heard God speak to us…People have read this book and heard God speaking to them… when they are spiritually dry—they have found well springs of water…. When they are arrogant, they have found themselves challenged and corrected… When they are in the deepest of despair, they have found their hope.

Lives have been changed by this book: including the spiritual giants like Augustine, Luther and Calvin… and many of the people sitting next to you in the pews today.

One of my favorite songs about the Bible is by a contemporary Christian singer named Sarah Groves. Her song is called, “The Word” and this is the song that resonates with more people than any other song. She writes and sings:

I’ve done every devotional, been every place emotional
trying to hear a new word from God, and I think it’s very odd
That while I attempt to help myself my Bible sits upon the shelf
With every promise I’ll ever need.

The Word was the Word is and the Word will be
The Word was the Word is and the Word will be …

I think it’s time we rediscover all the ground that we have covered
Like ‘seek ye first,’ what a verse
We are pressed but not crushed, perplexed but don’t despair

We are persecuted but never abandoned
We are no longer slaves, we are daughters and sons
And when we are weak, we are very strong

And neither death, nor life, nor present, nor future, nor depth, nor height
Can keep us from the love of Christ

And the Word I need is the word that was

He put on flesh to dwell with us
In the beginning

The Word was the Word is and the Word will be
The Word was the Word is and the Word will be

She says she wrote that song because she was struggling with the Word… so she wrote all the promises she heard in scripture… and then the song just flowed out of her… through her tears…

Later she was reflecting about how the Bible had changed her life. She shared the story of an event she attended for international justice in Washington. And a young woman, Elizabeth who was 23 then but was 15 at the time when her story took place. She was the oldest of 7 children living in a Christian family. She wanted to go to Bible College and she was in between her sophomore and junior year. She found out about a job in a neighboring community. But while she traveled to her job she was abducted and taken to a brothel. She was taken across the border into a country where she didn’t speak the language.

And this young woman of faith, hearing her story in her words, she said, “All I knew to do was to call out to God… she begged God to save her… and the girls even gathered around and mocked her.. They said, “God can’t hear you in a place like this.”

It was the Psalms happening in that moment as her enemies mocked her, and she said, “Still, I believed.”

And IJAM, the International Justice Mission, an operative came and found her there and they did their investigation and rescued her that night. And when they went into her room to rescue her, they saw something they had never seen before. In that little 6 by 8 foot room, on the wall above her mattress was 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.”

And a person asked Elizabeth later, would she share that Psalm as part of her presentation. She said, ‘no”, that Psalm was for that place and that time in the brothel. “But I will read Psalm 34 which says, “I sought the Lord and he heard my cry.”

Sarah says that changed the whole gospel for her. She thinks that as an American Christian that she had read those verses as sort of a figurative bondage and figurative oppression, “but now I can’t read Isaiah the same way.  There are people in literal bondage and I am called to be a part of that freedom.” That has completely changed how I read the Old Testament and the New Testament.”

Ask Elizabeth and Sarah: What is the Bible? They will tell you.

It is a sacred book, an inspiring book… a book where they hear God speaking to them… holding out life and hope in the most desperate situations… leading them to action.

What is the Bible? It is the book where they hear the Lord speaking to them… challenging the way they think… remolding and remaking them day by day…

No doubt the Psalmist felt that way as he wrote:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law (teaching/instruction ) of the Lord , and on his law they meditate day and night, they are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in due season.”

Happy, Happy, Happy indeed are those who find their delight in the Word of the Lord.



[1] P 37, Your Hands are the Hands of Christ