Sermon from June 27: Come, Live in the Light

Come, Live in the Light
Pentecost V; June 27, 2021
Ephesians 5:8-20

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.

It’s the middle of the year. Those of us who are doing the Year of the Bible are now halfway through. Congratulations to those who are still with us. And for the others: you can start now. You can finish in the new year, if you’d like.

Those who have been reading the Bible have described quite a range of reactions. Some of you are frustrated at how often the same thing gets repeated; do I have to read the same story again? Some of you are dismayed by some of what you read there: you see racism even to the extent of genocide; you see sexism; you see violence and cruelty and sexual misconduct; you see an unreflective acceptance of slavery. Some of you are troubled by some of what it says about God. Some of you are angry about people who seem to be favored by God. And some of you are disappointed at promises apparently unfulfilled.

I have heard some say that there are things you have read in the Bible that you wish you didn’t know. Frankly, one reason Christian leaders have often discouraged people from reading the Bible for yourselves is they also wish you didn’t know them. If you know only what we want you to know, then it is easier for us to control you and to influence what and how you believe.

Let me reflect a bit on some of these problems. I believe that it is better to know the truth, to know what is really in the Bible. Now, both the Bible and the Confessions of our Church say that understanding Scripture is never a matter for private interpretation (II Peter 1:20, Second Helvetic Confession 5.010), so when something is a problem you should never just decide for yourself what it means. You either decide not to worry about it, or you ask for help. And I have been trying to help with my weekly videos on Facebook and Wednesday evening Bible studies on Zoom. And I am always available for conversation about Scripture.

Anyway, I believe that mature adults are capable of dealing with the troubling parts of Scripture. Of course, what troubles one person doesn’t trouble another; we have differing issues with the Bible, which is part of what makes studying it so much fun. I cannot resolve in this one sermon all the problems you are having, but I hope some reflections will help.

The Bible tells a story, and tells it in many ways. The overarching story is this: God made a promise to Abraham, three promises really: I will give you many descendants; I will give you this land; through you all the families of the Earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:17-18). The descendants came through Isaac and Ishmael; the promise of the land came to fruition with the establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah; and all the families of the Earth have been blessed through Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth. But this story is not a simple novel, told from beginning to end with a simple cast of characters. For one thing, and this is very important to remember, this is a very long story. Abraham lived approximately 3,800 years ago; although human nature hasn’t changed in that time, human society has changed a great deal. We must not expect that social values and social attitudes that we take for granted in 2021 would be the reality of Abraham in 1800 BC, or King Solomon in 950 BC, or the Apostles in the first century AD. Values, assumptions, and attitudes change; do not impose ours on the people of another time. At the same time, don’t assume that our society should still look like what Paul describes in his letters.

Please understand too that there are many voices in the Bible. The Bible is not one book; it is a collection of books: 66 of them for us Protestants (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have some books that we do not). So you will find diversity among those books. Some of them are history; some are poetry. Some books look at events as fulfillment of promises, and others look at those same events as opportunities for teaching. When your eyes are glazing over because you think, “I already read this story in another book; why is it written again?” you can skim through it quickly and not worry about it because you’re right: you did read it before. Or you may think about possible answers to that question: Why is it written again? Perhaps the first time it was told as the history of something. The second time the writer wants to make the point that you should learn this lesson from it. Or perhaps the first time it is a promise and the second time it is the fulfillment of the promise. Or perhaps you read the story of the event, and then later you read a poem that reflects on the meaning of the event. There could be other reasons, but be assured: there is a reason, and you can decide to try to find it or simply not worry about it.

Anyway, that’s a simple example. Many things have bothered you as you’ve read, and this is part of what makes the Bible deep and interesting, or perhaps frustrating: it isn’t one book. Poetry and history are different from each other; prophecy and instruction are different from each other. Sometimes the voice is the voice of a story-teller, sometimes the voice of a singer, sometimes the voice of a teacher, sometimes the voice of a prophet. There are many voices.

There are many voices in the Bible in another way, too, and here I’m going to be a little controversial for some of you. People in the Bible have different theological opinions too. I know that some of you want the Bible to be one, singular point of view, but I am persuaded that it isn’t. There are many points of view in the Bible. I’ve heard some say there are two points of view: the point of view that God demands obedience to rules and commands killing those who do not obey, and the point of view that God is merciful and invites all to become part of the family. These points of view are constantly at odds with each other. Well, that helps. My thought, however, is that there are more than two points of view in the Bible; there are quite a few and I’ve never tried to tally them up. To mature in faith I need to listen to all those points of view and consider them.

Here are some examples. Our Old Testament readings recently have been from Chronicles. Many of the stories in Chronicles are repeats from I and II Samuel and I and II Kings. But Chronicles was written hundreds of years later with a completely different purpose in mind. A simple example: David did not build the Temple of the Lord. In II Samuel, the story is told that David wanted to build a house for the Lord, but the Lord said, “No; you shall not build me a house, but I will make a house of you” (II Samuel 7:4-17). In I Chronicles, David says that the Lord told him that he could not build the house because he had shed so much blood (22:8). The point of view in the history emphasizes the work of God for David; the theologian’s point of view focuses on peace. Or another example, easier to understand but harder to resolve. Late in his life, David took a census of the people, which was a wrong thing to do. Why it was wrong is not relevant to the example. Anyway, in the history book, it says that the Lord incited David to take the census (II Samuel 24:1), but in Chronicles it says that Satan incited David to take the census (I Chronicles 21:1). How do you reconcile that? I don’t reconcile it. I leave it that the historian had one point of view and the theologian had another point of view. Or one from the New Testament. This week we read Ephesians, in which Paul writes, “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15), but Christ himself said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17). Clearly they either meant something different or they had different points of view. Or both. There are multiple voices in the Bible.

My advice is to do with all of these different voices what you do with the different voices in your family and in our public life: listen to them, give all of them the attention they deserve, and pay particular attention to what makes sense to you. Well, I have a rule to suggest to you; let me build up to it. These voices in the Bible are all part of the conversation that brought us to where we are, they are part of our story, our history. They all matter, but some questions are more important than others – does it really matter who incited David to take the census? – and some voices are more significant than others. So let the voices rattle around inside your head as you think and pray about what to do with them.

And remember the words of John Robinson to the Pilgrims before they sailed on the Mayflower: “For I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word.” Today, for those of us who identify as More Light Churches, is More Light Sunday, since tomorrow is Stonewall Day. Our movement identifies with Robinson’s understanding that revelation from the Bible did not stop when the last book was written. God continues to reveal truth from the Holy Word, as people read it and understand it in the light of their own time, place, and experience. And so as you read, whatever type of voice you are reading and whatever point of view the voice may have, expect God to give insights of some sort or another. Expect you may think something you have not thought before. It may be exciting; it may be troubling; it may be wonderful; it may be annoying. But expect God to shine more light from the Bible.

And remember this rule: the rule of faith and love. Our tradition teaches us that those interpretations of the Bible are best that encourage us to have faith in God and that reveal to us the love of God (II Helvetic Confession 5.010). When you hear the different voices in the Bible and you wonder what to pay attention to, ask yourself, “What helps my faith? What shows the love of God?” To my mind, following the rule of faith and love pays attention to the source of the more light that shines from the Bible: to Jesus Christ. Christ is the source of our faith and Christ is the revelation of the love of God. The light that shines from Scripture is the light of Christ; that light shines more brightly than any other.

So I could say more about the words we read from Ephesians, but that’s enough to burden you with today. Take the words in verse 14 as a guide and encouragement as you continue your pilgrimage through the Bible: Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska