sharper than a two-edged sword

Sermon 7-31-16

Peace Covenant Church

Hebrews 4:11-16

11 Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience, 12 because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. 13 No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer. 14 Also, let’s hold on to the confession since we have a great high priest who passed through the heavens, who is Jesus, God’s Son; 15 because we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin. 16 Finally, let’s draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.

We’re in the midst of our summer series on prayer practices, and we’re getting to try all sorts of new and maybe uncomfortable things in worship. So, this morning, we’re going to start the sermon off by taking a test. No worries – it’s multiple choice, and full of absurdity. No grades, no implications, just a quick, multiple choice test here to start us out. Ready?

  1. Which of the following animals does NOT speak in scripture?
    1. a serpent (Genesis 3:1-4)
    2. a donkey (Numbers 22:28)
    3. a dove
  1. Which of these is not an insult used by a biblical character? (trick question!)
    1.  Bald Head, Bald Head! (2 Kings 2, Elisha calls bears to eat the boys!)
    2.  Crumb-eating Dog! (Matthew 15, Jesus refers to the Syrophoenician woman this way)
    3.  Brood of Vipers! (Matthew 23, Jesus on the Pharisees)
  1. Which of these things did Jesus NOT do?
    1. stop a storm in its tracks (Mark 4:35-51)
    2. bring people back from the dead (John 11:38-44)
    3. make a bird out of clay, breathe on it and make it alive (but it IS in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas AND the Quran)
  1. Which weird tactic was not used to save God’s people from annihilation?
    1.  pretending your wife is your sister (Genesis 12, Abraham lies to Pharoah)
    2.  setting a baby to sail in a reed basket in the river (Exodus 2)
    3.  battling an evil wizard so scary that He Must Not Be Named.

 

 

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There’s an awful lot of weird stuff in the bible. That makes sense, given that this thing we call a book is actually a compendium of sacred writings spanning over 3,500 years. The book of Job, the earliest book in the bible, was written sometime around 1500 years B.C., and the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were written no earlier than 30 years after Jesus died. They weren’t compiled until 400 years later.

 

In addition to scripture spanning such an incredible chronology of human existence, the kinds of writing included in what we call, simply, Scripture, are vastly diverse. There are creation myths – grand, cosmic tales explaining how everything came to be; codes of law, detailing how a community lived together through thick and thin; books of intricate, intimate poetry; a record of some of the first liturgies from ancient worship services; history books recalling the giants and saints of a people’s history; letters from a church leader to various congregations spread across a region; sermons that were so powerful they got passed around and around before getting included in sacred scripture; and bombastic apocalypses that laid out a vision for the end of the world.

 

In addition to all this diversity – spanning millennia and every literary genre – the scripture that we hold in our hands today is also several degrees of separation from the original text and the original story. Whatever English version we read – King James or New Revised Standard Version – it has been translated from the original Hebrew and Greek – in some cases, the English translation is actually a version of an earlier Latin translation, holding us out even farther from the original language and meaning.

 

But even before the scriptures got written down in their original languages, the content had been passed around, from generation to generation, as an oral tradition. This isn’t true for every book of the Bible – Paul’s letters in the New Testament probably originated as written material, like any letter. And perhaps the code of law in Leviticus was inscribed somewhere permanent before it became part of the canon. But for most of scripture – ancient stories and poetry – the content comes to us from an oral, storytelling tradition. The grand, cosmic stories and the particular ones of Israelites fulfilling and failing at their covenant with God, the narratives of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection – all that comes to us from a deeply woven and nurtured tradition of oral storytelling.

 

When we read scripture, we are placing ourselves in a wide, deep river of sacred story, told and translated by myriad women, men and children throughout millennia and across the planet. Every time we sit down with our bibles, we are slipping into this flow of wisdom that stretches so far back through history that it is hard for our small brains to comprehend, this flow of eternal truth that stretches equally as far into the future. Every time we sit down with our bibles, we are acknowledging that we are beings who belong to something vastly larger than we are even able to comprehend.

 

There is so much mystery here, in this one small book, so much history and theology and poetry and wisdom. It is impossible to understand scripture as single-minded or easy-to-digest. Time spent in God’s Word will do a number on anyone who dares approach it with an open heart and curious spirit. The Bible refuses to be belittled, corralled, or comprehended. It’s just too big.

 

Which is why it actually pains me when sisters and brothers in Christ demand that we read it as a literal representation of the world, or a word-for-word dictation of what God has spoken to human beings. Language does not work that way, for one: even in English we know how things like metaphor, analogy, poetry, sarcasm and irony work. Even dictation fails to convey the tone of what someone might be saying. How many of us have had to resolve some conflict of misunderstanding that came because text messaging and email don’t have a sarcasm filter, don’t convey the facial expression, body language and tone of voice that we use to indicate our meaning? God’s word is so much more nuanced and alive than printed words on a page.

 

If you don’t believe me, or if you assume scripture is to be taken literally, has all been said already, or easy to encounter, well, scripture itself disagrees with you: This is exactly what the writer of Hebrews says: God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. 13 No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.

 

God’s word is living and active – not frozen in time, not mummified in what it meant thousands of years ago, not petrified in some display case – living and active. And, moreover, scripture is active like a sword – a two-edged sword. It is alive and in action inasmuch as encountering it pierces our hearts, reveals the depths of our brokenness, and exposes all about ourselves that God already knows to our own consciousness.

 

Scripture, according to the writer of Hebrews, is a way toward God. It is a place that we can encounter – through this ancient wisdom tradition, a river so deep and wide that we can barely comprehend all that it might have meant, is meaning and will mean – a place that we can encounter the Eternal One, the God who created all that we know, the Lord of Lords, the one who saves us, sustains us, embraces us and enlivens us with the very breath we breathe.

 

Scripture – what a mystery. What a powerful, spiritual thing to encounter.

 

So, it makes sense, then, that our long tradition would have learned ways to encounter scripture that treat it as this complicated, powerful, mysterious path toward God.

There are plenty of ways to read scripture. If you go to seminary, or even college, you might learn about reading the Bible with a literary lens – dissecting its poetry and plot. Or you might learn to read it with a  historicapriory_stdomdesk2-300x214l-critical lens – researching and exploring the context of each book, who wrote it, what was happening in that part of the world in those days, why it made sense to the first hearers or readers. Or you might have learned to read scripture as an instructional manual – that every passage has immediate implication for how your own life is to be lived. Or maybe, just maybe, you really didn’t learn any of these ways of reading scripture, just heard it in Sunday school or worship once a week and thought, idly, “hmmm…that’s weird.”

 

Today’s prayer practice is called “lectio divina,” and it is an ancient way of encountering scripture that allows for the complication, power and mystery inherent in the Bible. It comes from St. Benedict of Nursia in the 5th century – or, at least, Benedict was the first to write it down in an instructional way. Probably Christians had been practicing reading scripture this way for a long, long time. Lectio is a way of reading – Latin for “divine reading,” and its purpose is to allow the words of the text to work on us in a much deeper way than the words that bombard us from every source all day every day.

 

The practice of lectio assumes that God can be encountered in every bit of scripture, but it does not insist that we know the history or the translation details or the context of the original composition. Lectio Divina assumes that there is great power in sacred scripture, and that by allowing ourselves to encounter the words with that assumption, opening our hearts to God’s living and active word, we can and will be changed.

 

Here’s how it works: The traditional structure of lectio is reading/reflecting/responding/resting. You choose a single passage of scripture, and then you listen to that single passage three times through. The first time you listen, you just hear it for what it is – become familiar with the movement of the language, the content of the passage. The second time you read or hear, you listen particularly for a word or a phrase that strikes you differently than the others, that jumps out at you or seems to shimmer or sparkle. The third time, you reflect: why is THAT word or phrase striking me? How does it connect to my own life right now? What might God be trying to say to me through this word or phrase? To end the practice, you offer a simple prayer of gratitude for God’s word and God’s presence in your life, and rest in the knowledge of the mystery of God’s word.

 

So. It’s pretty easy, and also pretty powerful. Are you willing to try it out, to enter into an ancient stream of active, flowing sacred scripture, right now, together?

 

Lectio Divina Practice: Psalm 19:1-10

 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

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