Sermon from February 27: Listen to Him
“Listen to him!”
Transfiguration; February 27, 2022
A lot of interesting questions swirl around the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, including the biggest one: What’s the point? Why the glowing robes and everything? I think the answer to that question has something to do with the sense that we’re seeing something of the glory of God in Jesus. The Old Testament reading (Exodus 34:29-35) suggests something similar: Moses’ face shone because he had been talking with God. The presence of God does that to a person: makes them shine. So Jesus shines like the blazes.
Another question that’s been asked is, “Why Moses and Elijah?” There are quite a few possible answers, but I’m going to work with one of them: they represent the Law and the Prophets. Jesus once said that he had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17); for Jewish people of the time the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was a way of saying “the Scriptures.” On the Mount of Transfiguration we see the One who fulfills the Law and the Prophets speaking with the one who brought the Law – Moses – and the one remembered as the greatest of the Prophets – Elijah. Jesus himself is the summary of the whole Bible.
Well, that was a big statement, and I think it’s worth remembering as I launch into some thoughts about the Bible. “Jesus himself is the summary of the whole Bible.” Hold onto that thought. Add this thought to it: at the end of the vision, the voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” So: Jesus is the summary of the Bible. Listen to him. I’m going to use this picture of the Lord having a conversation with the Law and the Prophets to respond to a question one of you put to me. It was a rather long email, so I won’t repeat it, but the essence of the question is this: “We have an Old Testament and a New Testament. Why don’t we have a Newer Testament? Has God been silent for the last 2,000 years?”
No, God has not been silent. The questioner asked about words of Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, John Calvin, Martin Luther King, Jr. Did God speak to them? Almost certainly. And it’s almost certain that God spoke to us through them. And not only them. Indeed, not to be haughty about it, but our Calvinist tradition says that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. But even though the Holy Spirit uses my frail words to speak to you, they will never be part of a Bible 3.0. Why not? Indeed, one likely candidate for a Bible 3.0, or a Newer Testament, has been Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. But there is no Bible 3.0, or Newer Testament. If God spoke through John Calvin, why are not his Institutes of Christian Religion considered the Bible 3.0? Is it because only Reformed Christians consider them to be true? One of my theology professors in seminary stood before us and said, “Hear the Word of God from the Gospel according to St. John” and proceeded to read to us from Calvin’s Institutes. But a Lutheran or Ukrainian Orthodox minister would not say that. Is that the only reason it’s not Bible?
No, that is not the only reason. Because the Bible does not include everything God has ever said. Yes, God has spoken since the last book of the Bible was written – possibly II Peter, but no one can be certain. God has spoken since then. But the Bible does not include everything God said even to the people in the Bible. If you put together everything in all four Gospels, you do not have everything that Jesus said and did. Surely God said through Micah a lot more than what is in his book.
Simply, there are two criteria that have traditionally been applied to things for them to be included in the Bible. One is, “Does it stand the test of time?” You have heard over the years of lots of old documents attributed to Biblical figures but that aren’t in the Bible. Dan Brown’s thriller The DaVinci Code is built upon the premise that there were a lot of books in the Bible that got taken out because they didn’t support the Roman Catholic power structure. Hogwash. There were lots of books that people wrote over the centuries and claimed they were written by the Apostle Thomas, or Mary of Magdala, or even Jesus himself, but these books were never in the Bible because people of faith knew better.
You may have observed that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians have books in their Bibles that we Protestants don’t have in ours. Some of them are really good stories, too, and filled with wisdom. But Jewish rabbis did not accept them as authentic, they said that these books didn’t come from real prophets, and we Protestants have thrown in with the rabbis. It wasn’t a decision of a council, or a power structure, but a realization over the centuries about what is authentic and what isn’t.
The other criterion I want to say something about is that it’s essentially eyewitness accounts. The Gospels, for example, were either written by apostles or by persons who interviewed apostles and others who knew Jesus directly. The letters of Paul were written by someone who had a direct experience of Jesus unlike anything the rest of us have had, and a calling unlike anything the rest of us have had. In other words, it isn’t just the authenticity of what the Scriptures say, but the reliability of the people who wrote them. They didn’t get every detail right – no serious student of the Bible would claim they did – and they don’t always agree with one another. But they were close to the events they were writing about. In the New Testament, particularly, they were there.
The ancient stories of the Old Testament are a different matter, and if I get into too much detail I’ll put you all to sleep. I’ll summarize by saying that the Bible is not a compilation of everything that God has said. The Bible is a compilation of the experience of God by those who were part of ancient Israel and by those who were close to Jesus. It is, almost, eyewitness testimony.
It has always been necessary to interpret the Bible for specific times and places and situations. Those who claim they are simply following the Bible without interpretation are lying. Well, let’s be charitable: they don’t know what they’re talking about. If you want my argument for that, ask me outside of worship. We have Luke’s account of what Jesus did; ever since, people have read it and interpreted what it meant for them. We have the account of the career of David; ever since, people have read it and interpreted what it meant for them. We pray that our interpretation is guided by the Holy Spirit and not by our own self-interest.
So, that was a long way of saying why there is no Bible 3.0: ancient Israel was when it was. Jesus lived on earth approximately 2,000 years ago. As a person educated in research, I think of it this way: the Bible is the primary source about ancient Israel and Jesus Christ; everything since then is secondary sources. Now, the Bible is not a closed book; it could be added to. But what can be added? Well, recent editions of the Old Testament include material that is in the Dead Sea scrolls but was apparently lost by the time the Masoretic texts were published. So things that apparently used to be there but somehow got lost can be added. And if a second book of Micah were found and the rabbis agreed that it was authentically the words of Micah, it could be added.
Likewise, if another letter of Paul were found, and Christians of all sorts throughout the world agreed that it was authentically Paul, it could be added to the New Testament. At one point Paul refers to his Letter from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16). No one has ever found a letter called “Laodiceans,” but if such a letter were found and accepted as authentic, it could be added to the New Testament. It would probably take several decades to a couple of centuries, but it is theoretically possible.
In the Bible we have a first-hand account of God’s work through Israel and, from that, through Jesus Christ. What God has done since then has been the subject of histories and systematic theology and stories and devotional works, all of them interpreting the Bible. Or consider this analogy. Imagine a historian 200 years from now wants to write about the meaning of the events of September 11, 2001. They would read news accounts from the day, probably look at digital recordings of televised accounts, consider the biographies of those who died, look at how the United States and the world responded. They would not pay as much attention to things written much later as they would to testimony close to the event, to primary sources.
When we listen for God to speak to us, we follow the command of the voice and listen to Jesus. We look to the Law and the Prophets: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. We look to the New Testament, the testimony of those close to Jesus. And we pray. We pray that God will shed yet more light through the Word we have inherited, that the Holy Spirit will guide us in understanding not just the what that is written in Scripture but what those words mean to us in our time and our situation.
Well, I know I didn’t completely answer my friend’s question, but I hope I got to the center of it. I’ll repeat what I said at first: remember that Jesus himself is the summary of the Law and the Prophets, and listen to him.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Here is the original message that sparked the sermon:
Here’s the sermon subject I said I’d send:
Does God still talk to us and guide us? If so, why don’t we formalize those teachings? Why isn’t there a Bible part 2?
For centuries we learn that God spoke to leaders like Abraham, Moses, Joshua…then came all the prophets…the Disciples and later Paul interpreting the teachings of Jesus which gave guidance to the early church. All of this became a collection of “God’s Word” which has been canonized and is the bedrock of Christianity. I get that…that’s great.
But, nothing since 2000 years ago? Surely God hasn’t stopped talking to us or guiding us? Why hasn’t more work from the last two millennia been collected, interpreted and canonized? Why no Book of Francis of Assisi? Luther? Calvin? MLK?
Is it because we (Christians) have become so split in what we believe and diverged from Christ’s teachings that we all could never agree that MLK’s “I have a dream” speech was as much the word of God as the dreams Ezekiel experienced? Maybe we don’t want to believe God is still talking to us? Or, we wouldn’t like what we hear? Perhaps do we just want to fall back on the comfort of a book that is 2000 years old?
For my 2-cents, I think the “Newer” testament, canonized or not, could be meaningful and fascinating.