Sermon of the Week
God’s Good Treasure: God-Breathed Scripture.
Keywords: Reformation, God-Breathed Scripture, Inspiration, sola scriptura, hermeneutics.
Next Week is Reformation Sunday in many Presbyterian Churches
but because we’re going to be celebrating Be the Church next week,
I thought it would be good to explore a bit about the Reformation today.
And, in addition, for the second week in a row,
the reading for the day leads us to focus our sermon on the Bible,
on the Holy Scriptures.
This makes sense, because every week we read from the Bible,
sing songs that quote the Bible
have a sermon that seeks to help us understand the Bible,
so that we can experience God in Jesus Christ a bit better.
The Bible is kind of a big deal.
And it has been this way for us for centuries,
certainly going back to the Protestant Reformation, in the early 1500s,
when Martin Luther introduced what he called the solas:
soli Deo Gloria…
which translate as a faith:
by Scripture alone
by faith alone
by grace alone
through Christ alone
and glory to God alone.
That first one, “Sola scriptura” – scripture alone –
was maybe the most important hallmark of the Reformation,
because it was a radical shift of authority within the Christian Church.
These days, the Bible is everywhere.
It is easily the most purchased book every year.
There are free apps and websites that offer most of the available translations
in almost every language.
So it feels like the Bible is quite accessible—
but it hasn’t always been that way.
Back during the time of the reformation, there weren’t very many Bibles.
For one thing, the Reformation happened just a few years
after the printing press had been invented.
Before the 1450s, the only way to duplicate a Bible was by hand;
a long, tedious process, to say the least.
Bibles were rare,
so crazy expensive,
and only written in Latin, which everyday people couldn’t read.
(Actually, many of the priests couldn’t read, either.)
So Martin Luther was something of a rarity:
an educated monk who could read the scripture.
And it was actually READING the Bible
that completely turned Martin Luther’s life around.
His understanding of God’s overflowing grace came from reading Paul’s letters;
and it was so enormously important, he thought,
that everyone should have the privilege
of reading the powerful words of the Bible for themselves.
But his grievance with the corruption of the Church of Rome
was also a mighty factor.
The Pope and his leaders held all this power –
over priests, over churches,
over theology, over governments, over people’s lives.
They made claims over who was in and who was out,
who got to heaven, and who went to hell.
They were the one and only authority, for all intents and purposes,
and had extraordinary power.
And Martin Luther upended it all with the very simple,
radical claim that God’s authority rested in scripture alone. Sola Scriptura
His argument was simple:
If we believe that God inspires these texts,
that God is the ultimate source,
that they point to the true Word,
then God alone has authority over our lives.
The scriptures are inspired, or to put it into a better, more accurate translation
from today’s reading in Second Timothy, they are God-breathed.
I really love that phrase.
In the Greek, it combines the word for God and the word for Spirit.
These texts should be useful for teaching, for reproof, for training in righteousness
because God is in there. The Spirit moves in there.
And if we listen for it, if we learn to recognize it and understand it,
God will give us all we need to know.
Therefore, said Luther, No one should need an intermediary before God,
and God speaks the Word of life to us all.
Well, that was a radically egalitarian idea,
so matter-of-fact to us now
that it’s hard to comprehend how truly radical it really was.
This led the Reformers to go to great lengths
to make reading scripture possible for everyday people.
They set about translating the Bible
from the original Hebrew and Greek
into the vernacular –
into the common languages the people spoke –
like German or English or French.
Printing Bibles to put in people’s hands.
Educating them so they could read the Bible themselves.
Building worship to surround the Word
so that people could learn what it meant.
John Calvin, one of the Reformers
particularly important for our branch of the Christian Family,
believed that everything in worship should surround the Word.
Word and sacrament were the principal means of grace, he said,
which is why we display the scripture on the screens for you to read every week.
These days, maybe every Christian knows the Bible is important to faith.
But that’s not to say that every Christian knows the Bible.
A lot of people I know feel vaguely embarrassed
that they don’t know the Bible better than they do,
but they’re not particularly interested in studying it.
I’m not sure exactly why;
maybe it’s like drinking kambucha: it’s an acquired taste.
Or maybe it just seems like too much work, without a lot of payoff.
There’s no question that reading the Bible is hard.
I remember making a concerted effort when I was in High School:
I was going to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
Genesis was pretty cool;
a lot of the stories I already knew from Sunday School.
Same with Exodus,
though all the rules and regs
tucked into the wandering in the wilderness seemed a bit much.
But I just couldn’t make myself slog through Leviticus and Numbers.
Four books in, at least in High School, I gave up.
It felt like learning another language. Who had time for that?
The Reformers recognized this;
John Calvin put it this way:
God “speaks openly, and utters nothing deceitful or ambiguous.
But experience tells us that Scripture is somewhat dark and hard to understand.”
That’s putting it mildly.
It doesn’t help that the texts were written thousands of years ago,
in ancient languages we don’t speak, with world views utterly foreign to our own.
As one scholar argues,
“It [feels so] thoroughly patriarchal…,
It has passages that [demand]…
total slaughter of all the people in a vanquished town…
It appears to defend slavery [and] describes polygamy without… condemnation.”
What’s not to love?
The reality, as we talked about as week,
is that the Bible can be used to support all sorts of positions.
It’s called “Proof-texting” –
you pick some text from the Bible
and use it out of context to bolster your own position –
to ‘prove’ that what you want is God’s will.
I read this week about another example of this.
Our kids are studying the civil war in their social studies class,
and I happened across Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
when he was describing the deep conflict in the union:
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,
and each invokes His aid against the other.”
As long as the Bible has had authority,
every conflict over social norms has played out the same way.
The role of women.
Homosexuality. Every single one.
Whole churches have been built around a few verses of scripture.
The Mormons are famous for baptizing people in absentia –
using extensive genealogy to find their ancestors
who could not have been baptized in the Mormon faith
because it didn’t exist then.
Turns out ‘baptizing the dead’ is something
that comes straight from scripture – 1 Corinthians 15:29!
The Pentecostal tradition emphasizes ‘speaking in tongues’ – from 1 Corinthians 12.
And we Presbyterians like to do things ‘decently and in order’ –
which comes from 1 Corinthians 14:40.
Every one of them from the same book of the Bible.
There’s the rub:
Even if we know what scripture says,
how do we know what it means?
A friend of mine puts the question this way:
“How can we avoid reading into scripture…
our own culturally and historically conditioned insights and self-interest?…
[and] How should we deal with
the historically conditioned character of scripture itself?”
In other words, how do we know what is actually God’s word to us today?
So, back to the scriptures being inspired, being God-Breathed.
Last week we discovered that we should read these texts in a way that liberates them,
that makes sure that they are unbound, unchained.
This week, we focus on listening to the spirit moving through them
the God-Breathed nature of our engagement with the text.
A slightly better reading of this verse in Second Timothy goes something like this:
Every Scripture that is God-Breathed is useful for teaching, for reproof,
for correction, and for training in righteousness.
So, which are the “God-Breathed” scriptures?
The Spirit guides us, to be sure;
and we believe that we hear the Spirit often in conversation with other people,
other voices, other opinions.
Scripture is radically egalitarian;
but it’s not individualistic.
We need each other, the community of faith, to interpret the Word for our time.
And over time, we’ve developed guidelines to help us.
Here are four of the most important for us to consider:
First: We interpret scripture in the light of Jesus Christ,
his life and ministry and death and resurrection.
What does Jesus say about it? That’s the first question.
Accordingly, second: we read it through the lens of the law of love.
Jesus said the greatest commandments
are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
That lens helps us see what’s most important. Is our reading loving?
Third: Scripture interprets scripture – that is to say,
we don’t take individual verses at their face value,
but in the light of what the rest of scripture says.
We pay attention to literary and historical context within scripture.
And finally, we look to the faith of the broader church –
past and present –
to guard against our simply taking our own preferences as God’s will.
Those rules help guide us as we listen for the voice of God in the Word of God.
Reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther knew it would be hard.
Which is why they wrote massive volumes of commentary on the scripture,
and why scholars and preachers and teachers have been doing that ever since.
We talk about what we think it means,
and put it on the table for people to think about and poke at and try on for size.
Think about it as peer-review, a wrestling with God, a seeking after understanding.
Which may beg the question: why bother?
If it’s that much work, why bother reading scripture at all?
We can be perfectly fine church-goers without it;
many of us have been doing it for years!
We love our neighbor, or try to;
we volunteer in the church and community;
we try to live good lives;
we worship God.
Aren’t we really OK without it?
And the answer is, in one sense: of course!
God’s grace is not dependent on our knowledge of scripture.
There’s not a Bible section on an SAT test
to decide whether we get into heaven.
And yet… there is so much we are missing
if we keep the Bible on the shelf.
Barbara Brown Taylor,
who is a writer and Episcopal priest,
describes her own journey of discovering Scripture.
“The more I discovered what was there,
the more I discovered what was not.
Adam and Eve ate “forbidden fruit” in Eden,
but nowhere in the Bible is an apple mentioned.
Jacob made a long-sleeved robe for his favorite son, Joseph,
not a coat of many colors.
Matthew describes travelers from the East
who bore gifts to Bethlehem, but ‘We Three Kings’ is pure invention.
All of this excited me,
because there was clearly much more to the Bible than I had ever expected,
and exploring it demanded more of me as well…
I could take the text apart
and put it back together again without harming it,
ask questions and challenge the answers
without being struck by lightening.
The word of God turned out to be plenty strong enough
to withstand my curiosity.
Every time I poked it, it poked me back.
Every time I wrenched it around so I could see inside,
it sprang back into shape the moment I was through.
In short, the Bible turned out not to be a fossil under glass
but a thousand different things –
a pair of binoculars,
a high diving board,
a goad –
all of them offering themselves to me
to be touched and handled and used.“
I can’t imagine my own life without the Bible.
It’s the story I live inside of;
it’s the story of my life.
My story is part of a bigger story,
with a beginning, middle and an end,
and I am privileged to be a character in this story of God’s grace.
I belong to a God, scripture tells me,
a God who made the world in all its beauty,
who wants me to notice and revel in how beautiful it is.
I follow a Savior, the Bible tells me,
a Savior who made his way into the world not to condemn me,
or other people, or the world itself,
but to save it; to love it into goodness and wholeness and life.
I am empowered by a Spirit, this book tells me,
a holy Spirit,
that breathes power and energy into me
and whispers words of encouragement and correction and tenderness,
who helps me see my life as it was meant to be.
It’s the story I live inside of,
a story with miracles and magic,
sinners and saints,
a story where goodness is stronger than evil,
love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death.
It is a story that,
in spite of all the trials of this world –
it has a happy ending.
I love the Bible.
It didn’t always used to be that way.
But I love it like a best friend.
The Bible is how God talks to me.
God doesn’t lecture me or scold me;
it’s a conversation we’re having.
Honestly, my sermons?
They’re the conversations God and I are having in my head,
and I just lay them out for you in hopes they’ll mean something.
But mostly what I hope for is that you’ll have that conversation, too.
Because this Bible? It’s your story, too.
So may we, my friends,
continue to be enraptured by this endlessly complicated, life giving book,
and seek out ways to draw from it the goodness of our God
and help others see that this is what God wants from us,
a life of love and faith and hope for all.
May it be so.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 45:19, vol. 2, 421. Cited in Howard L. Rice, Reformed Spirituality, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 102. Sermon indebted to the work of Karen Cakoan.
 Rice, 97.
 Most good translations of the bible put a version of this in the footnotes. Because the Greek omits the verb, translators have to make a decision about whether the adjective “God-Breathed” or “Inspired” is attributive or a predicate, that is, whether to read the sentence “Every Scripture is Inspired and useful…” or “Every Inspired Scripture is useful…” This makes a difference in how we understand what the author is trying to convey.
 These come from Shirley C. Guthrie, Always Being Reformed: Faith for a Fragmented World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 24-29.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, (Lanham, MD, Cowley Publications, 1993), 61.