THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Year B, Lectionary 25
September 20, 2015
Pastor David Tryggestad
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Youth Director Meagan Esterby gave me an assignment this past Wednesday. She asked if I might teach the opening session of Confirmation this coming week. If you were in worship last Sunday, you recall that many of our young people received age-appropriate Bibles, depending on their age or grade: three-year olds, third graders, and sixth graders. Sixth graders are starting their Confirmation journey and their new study Bible will be their guide, not only through their years of Confirmation, but also through their life’s journey.
The assignment Meagan gave me was this: In 20 minutes or less, give our young people an introduction to the Bible—and that 20 minute limit includes a four-minute video. That leaves me with 16 minutes. Now when I was a freshman at Luther College, I took an intro to the Bible course that lasted the entire year. And Meagan wants me to offer an introduction to the Bible in 16 minutes! Yikes!
If you were to give the Bible as a gift to a young person, where would you suggest that person begin? In the beginning? That would make sense if the Bible were a novel, but it’s not. In fact, the Bible is not any one kind of literature. It’s a collection of many kinds of writings. It’s a collection of 66 books in all. It’s a library. And in this library we find history, liturgy, songs (even colorful and suggestive love songs), theology, teaching, ethics, wisdom, and biography—and more! Where do we begin?
A careful reading of the entire Bible reveals a variety of points of view, a variety of images of God, even areas of discrepancy and disagreement. Some have attempted to distinguish and contrast the images of God between the Old and New Testaments, for example, by suggesting that the “God of the Old Testament” is a God of vengeance, while the “God of the New Testament” is a God of Love. We’ve all heard it; some of us may have said it.
Two verses from our appointed Scripture readings for today are evidence of this notion. The beleaguered Old Testament prophet Jeremiah laments to God about his detractors and cries out, “. . . let me see your retribution upon them . . .” (vs. 19b). Our psalmist sings, “. . . strangers have risen up against me, and the ruthless have sought my life . . .” (vs. 3) and challenges God: “Render evil to those who spy on me; in your faithfulness, destroy them” (vs. 5). Despite these and other similar passages, to conclude that the God of the Old Testament is a God of vengeance is a false and grotesque caricature of God.
One of the preeminent Old Testament scholars in the world in the last century published a book in 1979 entitled: What Does the Old Testament Say About God? The Old Testament says many things about God, some of them seemingly contradictory, but, according to Claus Westermann, the author, the primary thing the Old Testament says about God is that “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” A far cry from the Old Testament portraying a God of vengeance!
Last Sunday we considered Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” We learned that the New Testament offers many and various viewpoints on that issue. The history of the Church for 2000 years has witnessed that various Christian groups, denominations, or sects tend to foster one particular image of Jesus over others. These various different understandings of Jesus have resulted in innumerable struggles and even violence through the centuries.
So when we read the Bible, where do we begin? And when we have answered that question and we launch into this marvelous book, we are confronted with things that are difficult to understand, things that don’t make sense to us, things that seem to contradict each other. How do we make sense of all of it? So we must eventually come to another critical question: Is all Scripture created equal?
Now this may sound like a scandalous question. But let’s consider some specifics. For example, the Bible says that there are certain foods that we’re forbidden to eat. Pork is one (Deuteronomy 14:8). A week ago Wednesday we enjoyed grilled pork chops during the Quilter’s lunch. The Bible says that we’re not to wear clothing made from a combination of different fabrics (Deuteronomy 22:11). The slacks I’m wearing are made of polyester and wool. The Bible says that women, after giving birth, must wait a prescribed period of time before going to the temple to worship (Leviticus 12:2-5). The Bible says that women are to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35). The Bible says something shocking about rebellious young people—do we know any rebellious young people? Or have we ourselves been a rebellious young person? The Bible commands us to take rebellious young people and stone them to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)! No doubt you have your own list of confusing and problematic texts from the Bible.
Is all Scripture created equal? The answer is clearly and emphatically No.
We know that Scripture is inspired by God. But what does that mean? (The video we will show during Confirmation as part of my 20 minutes will get at this issue of inspiration.) This book we claim to be the norm and guide for our life of faith is a collection of writings from many different authors over more than a thousand years. Have they all experienced God in the same way? Have we all experienced God in the same way? Do we all have the same understandings of God?
Martin Luther can help us. Luther tells us that the Bible is the “cradle” for Jesus. The Bible gives us Jesus. The Bible shows us Jesus. The first verse of the Gospel of John, the author writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the 14th verse of that same first chapter, the author asserts: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” That Word is Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God “incarnate”—“made flesh.” This morning we sang the hymn, “O Word of God Incarnate.” The hymn is not about the Bible; the hymn is about Jesus. In the sixth chapter of John, all the crowds have left Jesus, no longer interested in what he has to say—they don’t understand and they find his teaching scandalous. Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t you also want to go away?” Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
So where do we begin in reading our Bible? Let us begin with Jesus. According to Jesus himself, all the law and prophets of the Old Testament before him point to him. Jesus is the culmination and fulfilment of what God has been doing in the world. Jesus becomes the interpreter of Scripture.
Jesus says over and over in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.” Jesus not only interprets Scripture, and reinterprets Scripture, but he also repudiates Scripture. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye . . .’ but I say to you, do not resist evil and turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38). Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies,’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Matthew 5:43).
The Bible gives us Jesus. And Jesus then gives us the Bible. But it’s the Bible according to Jesus. It’s the Bible read through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Any other reading or interpretation of the Bible is not the truth about Jesus or the truth about God.
But even the Bible according to Jesus has proven to be confusing. And that confusion goes all the way back to the disciples. Last week, we found Peter rebuking Jesus and then Jesus in turn rebuking Peter. Peter didn’t like what Jesus was telling them about what it would mean for Jesus to be the Messiah. Now again today we find Jesus scolding the disciples for misunderstanding him and his ministry.
A little context is helpful. Between last Sunday’s Gospel reading and today’s, Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain where he was transfigured before them. His face and clothing shown bright as lightning. Not only that, Moses and Elijah, both dead for centuries, appeared with him, and the three of them were talking together. The disciples were astonished. The disciples saw Jesus in his heavenly glory and splendor. Maybe, they thought, Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said he must suffer and die. Maybe he—and all of us—will be exalted and given honor and glory.
So it’s not surprising that the disciples are arguing amongst themselves on the road, with the three who witnessed the transfiguration telling what they had seen (we wonder if they kept the secret). No doubt the three of them put themselves at the front of the line for glory. They refused to believe, again, Jesus telling them that he must suffer and die.
I wonder if Peter, James, and John told the others what God had spoken on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses represented all the law of the Old Testament, and Elijah all the prophets. Then there was Jesus. God speaks from the cloud that overshadowed them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).
Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. All the law and all the prophets are to be interpreted through Jesus. All Scripture is interpreted through Jesus.
And this is what Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
To illustrate his point, Jesus takes a little child and puts it in their midst. It’s helpful to know that children were not doted on in first century Palestine the way they are now. Children were mostly a burden and a nuisance. But not to Jesus. He takes a little child and puts it in their midst.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Pastor Mike Carlson from St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi was here this past Wednesday to speak to the Confirmation youth from all the area churches. Pastor Mike is a child of Our Savior’s, having been confirmed here. The sanctuary was packed last Wednesday. He told a story about once taking a baby from its mother’s arms during worship and handing the child to the crabbiest person in the room.
We could try that now, but there aren’t any crabby people here. We can’t claim Jesus as Lord and be crabby! And children are welcome here! Because Jesus says so.
The entire world was shocked, horrified, and unspeakably grieved at the photo of a dead three-year-old Syrian child lying face-down on the beach on the coast of Turkey, having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, along with his mother and five-year-old brother. The photo has moved the world to compassion and action. The image confronts all of us: globally, nationally, communally, and individually. How do we receive such little ones as these?
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Thanks be to God!