12Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
(Hebrews 4:12-13, NRSV)
Some years ago I took a bus ride from Cairo, Egypt, through the Sinai Peninsula to Mount Sinai. The trip took several hours, so I had a good look at the landscape. I've never seen anything so dead in my life. It was like a lunar landscape without the craters. Much of the ground was chalk white, and there was no vegetation until we got to the end of the peninsula where the mountains are. At the base of Mount Sinai is Saint Catherine's Monastery, which has been there probably since the 4th century. We stayed in a hostel beside the monastery. They get you up at about 3:00 in the morning, and we walk with flash lights to the mountain and then take the trail to the top.
There is a long trial of people, and you can see them with their lights snaking their way through the wilderness and then up the mountain. You arrive just as the sun is rising over the distant mountain tops—a spectacular slight. Yet it was also a desolate, austere beauty—mountains without snow or trees or any apparent life. There is also a small Eastern Orthodox chapel at the summit. I went up to the resident priest to say hello expecting to meet an Egyptian. But he was a priest from Boston, who spoke with a clipped New England accent.
This experience helped to bring home to me the Israelites' experience in the wilderness. They lived in the Nile Delta region, which today is green and fertile as it must have been 3,500 years ago. There they were slaves, but all the needs were being met. And as soon as they passed through the Red Sea into the stark Sinai, they begin to grumble against Moses.
First they grumbled that there was no water: But God through Moses supplied them with water, making sweet the bitter water of Marah and then leading them to desert springs.
Then they grumbled about food. What were they to eat in the desert where nothing seemed to live. They said that in Egypt they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted. But now Moses had led them out into the desert to starve. “Were there not graves enough in Egypt that we should have to go into the desert to find them?” So God supplied them with quails and manna.
Then they were attacked by a fierce desert people, the Amalekites. But God gave them the victory. The Israelites learned that God was with them every step of the way and saw to all their needs.
The wilderness experience of the Israelites was the great formative period of their history. It was the time when God gave them the Ten Commandments and his others laws by which they were to live. It was the time when God lifted up their greatest leader, Moses. It was the time when they learned to be a free people—to govern themselves. Yet the wilderness experience was also one of their most difficult experiences. The wilderness was not a pleasant place to live—it was hot, dry, and uncomfortable. They had to live in tents, never establishing permanent homes. The food was monotonous though nourishing. Moreover, they remembered the land of Egypt, which didn't seem so bad now that they were in a desert. They were also looking forward to living in the “Promised Land,” though they were obvious anxious about how this was going to come about.
I'm bringing this up this morning because we, the United Parish of Bowie, are also undergoing at the moment a wilderness experience. We are living in an in between time—a time of uncertainty. Some of us are still looking back lovingly on what was and have not yet come to grips with the present let alone the future. Others are definitely anxious about what the future will bring.
As your interim pastor, I get to play the role of Moses. You may think that that sound rather good, but actually Moses had a very difficult role to play. He was never really involved in the leadership of the Israelites in Egypt, and he was not allowed by the Lord to enter the “Promised Land,” though he looked at it from afar on Mount Nebo. Moses was in effect an interim pastor. As such he had to listen to all the grumbling of the people against him, and God. He had to prevent the people from reverting to idol worship. He had to face down more than one rebellion. He had to endure attacks on his leadership even from within his own family.
On the positive side, he helped the people to form a new covenant with the Lord, to embrace a new understanding of what God was calling them to do and to be. He helped them to move beyond what they were in the past to something radically new—they moved from being slaves to being a free people under God. This must have been very exciting and challenging time for Moses and for the Israelites.
The author to the Hebrews in the New Testament refers to this time in the first several chapters of his letter. He was writing to Jewish Christians who were familiar with the Old Testament and were tempted to revert to Judaism or to Judaize the gospel. The author of Hebrews warns them against this. He reminds them that the Israelites have a rebellious history and have not always heeded the word of God. And he refers specifically to the wilderness experience when the Israelites often tried God, but also when God spoke to them more clearly than ever before. In the third chapter of Hebrews he quotes the 95th Psalm:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. (Hebrews 3:8-9)
He repeats the first line of this psalm three times: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” And then he concludes this section with the passage that we read this morning on the power of God's word: “The word of God is living and active, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
These words, it seems, to me are particularly important for those of us who are living in an in between time, who are in the wilderness—and this is where we are today. It is particularly important for us because in the coming months we are going to be attempting to rediscover our identity, our sense of calling, our mission as a church and as a people of God. And therefore we need to listen to hear his voice, and, when we hear it, not to harden our hearts.
Now of course what I am talking about is the importance of the Bible. (When the author of Hebrews refers to “the Word of God” he means the Old Testament, but we can extrapolate from that to mean the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments.) Why is God's word so important? I want to make three affirmations and one observation about the Word of God that I think will answer this question, and which I think will remind us of who we are as a people of God.
Three Affirmations and One Observation
First, the Bible is the inspired word of God. We believe that God is light and that he wants to shine his light into our darkness. Therefore he has acted in history, in the events recorded in both the Old and New Testaments. Moreover he has spoken. He has inspired the prophets and apostles to speak forth his words. And finally this speech has been committed to writing, or has been inscripturated as we have it in the Bible. The Apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Cor. 2:13:
we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit
Not everyone calling himself or herself a Christian agrees with this. Some say that the Bible is merely a human record of the Israelite people. Therefore it contains many errors and expresses a pre-modern worldview that we can no longer take seriously. And because the Bible is not inspired by God, it can be rejected as an authority that we are to heed.
Others say that the Bible is a dead letter that comes alive only when the Holy Spirit inspires us when he read or listen to it. Hence the preacher prefaces the reading of the Scriptures with the expression, not “Hear the Word of the Lord,” but “Listen for the word of the Lord.” For them, the Bible is only subjectively, not objectively, the word of God.
I believe that the Bible is objectively the Word of God. But this does not mean that God dictated his word. Rather, he inspired the Apostles and Prophets in such a way that his word was expressed through all the limitations and peculiarities of their humanity. Hence, for example, Matthew's Gospel is very different from John's. The two authors use different vocabularies, and they have different emphases. But both gospels, though written by human authors, are so inspired as to be the word of God; they both present a view of Jesus that is true and authoritative, though different from each other.
Second, because the Bible is the inspired word of God, it is authoritative in matters of faith and morals. Notice that I've limited this authority. I don't think the Bible is authoritative in matters of science or history or geography. I think that it is authoritative in those areas in which it means to teach—the areas of spiritual and moral truths. The others areas, referred to incidentally in the Bible, are subject to changing human understanding and may be areas in which God has accommodated to our ignorance. For example, the Bible says that the world was created in six days. Most of us agree today that this is the language of poetry not science, and that to take it as science is to misunderstand what it is that God is teaching.
Hence, for me the conflict between science and religion is largely based on misunderstanding. In reality there is only a conflict between a highly literalistic interpretation of the Bible and modern science. But we should not be wed to outworn interpretations. God speaks to us through the Bible, but he also speaks to us through the natural universe; and he does not contradict himself. Where science and religion are in conflict—and rightly so—is in the matter of the uses to which scientific knowledge is put. There Christianity has much to say to a science which can be life-perverting and life-destroying.
Third, the Word of God is a living word. It is not simply history; it is not a museum of old ideas and insights that have seen their day. This is the point that the author of Hebrews makes so eloquently in today's passage:
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Someone once said to me, “Why should I take the Bible seriously? It was written a long time ago, and the world has changed. It no longer speaks to the modern world.” To which I responded: “The Bible's truths are timeless. Which one of the Ten Commandments would you repeal? Which one of the Beatitudes has become passé?” The fact is that many people reject the Bible, not because they don't believe it, but because they don't want to live it. Jesus says as much in John 3:19:
Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
People have sometimes admitted the truth of this to me. They say, I won't become a Christian because then I'll have to conform myself to a lot of moral rules that I don't want to. More often, however, people tend to present their theoretical objections to the faith. And, to be honest, I've often had difficulty with this passage because I think that people really do have intellectual hurdles to over come before that can accept Christianity. Yet beneath peoples' intellectual problems there often seem to lie moral problems.
Consider the story of Saint Augustine. It's true that he lived in the forth and fifth centuries, but in many ways he was a very modern man. His Confessions is considered to be the first modern autobiography because it shows so much introspection and psychological depth. Augustine's mother, Monica, was a Christian, but he rejected her faith early in his life. He preferred to live a loose life, taking a concubine and having an illegitimate son. In his Confessions he describes his fascinating intellectual journey to the faith.
He was a Manichean for most of his early life, until he discovered that they mistook myth for science. He passed through periods of interest in Neo-Platonism, astrology, agnosticism. He also had a number of misunderstandings of Christianity that needed to be cleared up. But in the end, when he had eliminated all of the rivals to Christianity and resolved all of his intellectual difficulties, Augustine could still not bring himself to become a Christian. It turned out that the greatest hurdle was moral. Augustine loved the world and all its pleasures and did not want to give them up. He was the saint who famously prayed: “God make me chaste, but not yet.”
Imagine the terrible strain he underwent, his mind and heart pointing him to the truth, and love of the world pointing in the opposite direction. Finally Augustine, who was then living in the beautiful city of Milan, went into his garden and burst into tears. But then he heard children nearby sing a little song over and over again: “Take and read, Take and read.” He then picked up a copy of Paul's letters to the Romans where he denounces orgies, drunkenness, and sexual immorality. Paul says,
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.(Rom 13:14)
This is not some great but elusive truth. It was a plain moral truth. Yet these are exactly the words that Augustine the budding theologian and one of the greatest intellectuals that the Church ever produced needed to hear, for he then gave his life completely to the Lord.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is correct: For the word of God is living and active; it speaks to us today; it speaks to each one of us. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to the dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
The Word of God is powerful and incisive, but we have to put ourselves in places where we can hear the word, which brings me to my final point: not an affirmation about the Word, but an observation.
Fourth, the word of God is not heard much in our culture, and sometimes not even in our churches. The prophet Amos prophesied that there would be
a famine in the land, not of food or thirst, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)
J.I. Packer once commented that American Christianity is 3000 miles wide and one inch deep. I believe that to a very large extent this is true because we no longer take care to hear the word of the Lord.
We don't hear it for a variety of reasons, some of which I've already mentioned. Some are not sure that the Bible really is the word of God. Others think that the Bible is a dated book that can't speak to the modern world. Others are content (or conditioned) to only hear a few of the truths of the Scriptures, and do not open themselves to the whole council of God. Others—and probably most of us — are simply too busy to take the time to hear God word. And this does take time and effort: to come to worship services and to really listen to what the minister is saying; to study the Bible alone or with others and make the effort to apply it to our lives.
I began today by talking about my personal experience in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, and trying to imagine what life must have been like for the Israelites who passed through it. They were a people on a journey, who knew that the wilderness was only to be a part of that journey, not at all their permanent abode.
When you go on a journey, you take certain things with you. When I drove to Pittsburgh last week, I filled the tank with gas and took along a road map, some food, and audio cassettes to pass the time.
The United Parish of Bowie is now also on a journey; we are passing through an in between time, as the Israelites did in the wilderness. It was a time when they re-created themselves; received a new covenant from the Lord; and, when they were ready, crossed into the Promised Land. As we begin this journey together, one of the things that we must take with us is the Word of God. This is something that really needs to be said because the Bible has become so undervalued in our culture and even in our churches.
In a few months, as we do our Mission Study and formulate in words what it is that we believe God is calling us to do, we need to do so in the light of the relevant Biblical passages. This is one of the tasks that I have set myself as I attempt to help guide the church through this time of discernment.
And what is true for the church as a whole is also true for each of us as individuals. Our church is on a journey through the wilderness, but each of us is also on a journey. If it is a Christian journey, one thing that you will want to take with you is God's word. I urge you, in your busy lives, to make time to hear God's word to you—that word which is a double-edged sword cutting through our pretensions and attitudes of the heart and even touching our souls. In the words of the Psalmist:
Today, if you heart his voice,
Do not harden your hearts.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker on October 15, 2006
© 2006 Michael T. Parker