Sermon of the Week:
Again & Again: We are Reformed
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Keywords: Greek, Interpretation, Literalism, Want to See Jesus, Bible. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Sometimes, when things are hard to understand
People throw up their hands and say:
Its all Greek to me!
Have you ever heard that?
Wikipedia says that this idiom makes sense
Because complex math formulas often use Greek symbols,
and who knows what’s going on in there.
But it’s not just math.
Apparently, there was a saying in Latin, from the Middle Ages,
that goes Graecum est; non legitur
which means “It’s in Greek; therefore it cannot be read…”
which goes to show you that even medieval Monks
made fun of trying to read the Greek language.
Even so, and risking the possibility that you’ll throw up your hands
I want to talk a bit about some of the subtle things you pick up
When you try to read the scriptures in the original languages.
Please don’t throw up your hands yet. Stay with me a bit.
I’m not bringing all this up to brag or grandstand or anything.
Like a lot of things, I’ve forgotten quite a bit since I studied Greek in college
and then later in Seminary,
but it is one of those things that our denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA
requires of its pastors.
The Bible is in Greek, and Hebrew,
So preachers need to learn some Greek and Hebrew.
One of the reasons why it’s so helpful,
It seems to me,
Is that every so often the original languages
unlock these little gems
That you just can’t see in the English translation…
Sometimes it’s a bit of humor, maybe a word that gets carried throughout a story.
First you’ll see it in a verb, then it comes up again as an echo of a name.
Thinking about this can add some beauty and some texture to a story,
Something that you can’t replicate in translation.
For example: consider Jacob, son of Isaac.
We learn about him in the book of Genesis.
Jacob means ‘to follow, to be second,’ which makes sense,
because he was a twin, and the second born,
Grabbing at the heel of his brother Esau… the story goes.
But the name Jacob also means ‘to supplant, to overreach’,
which, when you read the story of those brothers,
how he tricked his father Isaac to give him the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s
the tension that ensued,
leading to Jacob’s wrestling with God at the Jabbok,
the place where he would get a new name, Israel,
the one who wrestles with God…and lives!
The dynamic behind the wordplay of these names explains so much about what is going on.
Giving just a bit of thought to the original meaning of these words
helps open that up, don’t you think?
There’s a depth, a richness, that can get lost in translation.
And some of that is inevitable, even predictable.
Here’s one that often surprises people:
Sometimes what gets obscured is a curse word, an expletive,
that the translators thought was just too much.
Gasp! We can’t have that! That word? Really? In the Bible?
So they, well, toned it down a little, whoever was in charge of such things.
The Apostle Paul curses from time to time, did you know?
The most famous example is in one of my favorite books, Philippians, chapter 3.
And I don’t know, I don’t think it matters too much for our everyday purposes
That the text is cleaned up a bit,
if we rendered these words of his more accurately,
or if we collectively spent a bit more time trying to understand
the context, background, flow of Paul’s letters, did some word study,
then maybe Paul would seem more human in the end,
Less self-righteous, more normal,
More like you or me…
Look: I’m not advocating for bringing curse words back to scripture.
That’s not the point.
But we are reading old, old texts,
And more often than you might suspect,
These little choices, well, they make all the difference in the world.
They influence how we feel about a text, how we argue about what the texts mean,
And, behind that, what sort of God we look for, and expect to find.
There’s this passage in Second Timothy, for example,
Second Timothy 3:16-17,
Where the author is talking about the use of holy writings, the scripture,
For the life of faith.
It is an important enough text
That that scripture reference, 2 Timothy 3:16-17,
was engraved in the pulpit of my childhood church.
I saw it every Sunday, when the preacher got up there to read scripture
And to reflect on it,
A communal act of listening together for God’s word for the day.
The New Revised Standard Version, the NRSV,
one of the most popular English versions out there,
translates 2 Timothy 3:16-17 like this:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching,
and for training in righteousness,
so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient,
equipped for every good work.
So far, so good.
By itself, even if considered out of context,
you can tell that it speaks to the importance, the central importance,
Of our holy writings, that they are inspired by God,
Or, better, that they are God-breathed,
which is what the word actually says,
God’s very breath undergirding these writings,
And as such, they are useful,
for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.
And you can understand why that reference might go on a pulpit,
where we preachers
Regularly turn to these sacred texts and go looking for meaning, for God’s word
For the movement of the spirit in our lives, in this life.
Breathe on me, breath of God….
We, you and I, are looking, right this very moment, for a God-breathed word.
And on one level, I love this succinct, focused sentiment,
The idea within the bible itself,
about what the Bible is, and how we might use it.
Sometimes it is very helpful.
Other times, not so much.
Because there are other times when this little passage
Is cited as the final proof, the absolute answer, for one’s reading of the Bible.
Take, for instance, this sort of discussion,
which I saw play out in the comments of a social media post not that long ago:
The Bible says that women are not supposed to teach in church.
Well, let’s talk about that.
Do you know where it says that, and what the context is?
And how do you balance that with these other examples of women
that Jesus empowered,
who ran early house churches,
who preached and taught and healed and led…
I’m sure you’re not reading those right,
because it says over here that they’re not supposed to teach in church.
Well, and maybe your reading is the one that isn’t right,
in light of all the other things we see…
No, it is. The Bible says so.
Why? Maybe that passage is wrong?
No! All scripture is God-inspired and is useful for teaching…. And so on.
I’ve heard this sort of logic more times than I care to count.
In fact, for some, this text in 2nd Timothy
has become THE foundation for their literalist view of the Bible.
All Scripture is God-Breathed. [Read more…]