Claiming Our Story
Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
I was young, in a new town, and wanted to belong. Many of my new friends invited me to join a vibrant group on campus. There was a lot to like about this religious group. I liked that they worshiped at night. That was back when I could actually sleep late into the morning. I liked that everyone around me was close to my own age. I liked much of their music. It was something new and sounded entirely different, and often refreshing to my traditional Presbyterian ear. I really liked that every worship service was followed by all you can eat pizza!
It was 1972 and I was a freshman at the College of William and Mary. My friends wanted me to join a group called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. The qualifications for joining this group have softened some over the years, but back then, they required that you believe that the Bible is infallible, without error or contradiction. I did not know much about the Bible at the time, but I just could not quite believe all that they needed me to believe. I wanted to join but I could never find the same certainty about the Bible that they found.
With the urging of two fine parents, I grew up going to Sunday School and worship. I learned many of the most familiar Bible stories. As I got older, I started asking lots of questions about what I had been taught in Sunday School and had heard from the pulpit. I wondered why so many sermons and lessons flattened out into clunky prose what was clearly intended as poetic speech in the Bible. I asked my pastor why the church felt such a need to fight the battle between faith and science when the biblical writers seemed to have little interest in that argument themselves.
I cannot say that my questions were ever welcomed or encouraged in church. In fact, they were often discouraged and so by the time I arrived at college, I had pretty much set church and Christianity to the side. I had concluded that to be a person of faith, you had to love the Bible without asking difficult questions of it and to be a real believer you had to check your mind at the door. The new religious group on campus only seemed to reinforce my conclusions.
In that same freshman year, in addition to being invited into the world of Intervarsity, I had a couple of experiences that forever shaped me and my love of the Bible. The first experience happened in a course that I took because no other course was available at the same time, not an unusual happening for a lowly freshman. The second experience happened through time spent with an avowed atheist.
At an hour too early to be studying any course, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of my freshman year, I listened to a wise professor hand me a Bible that I had never seen before. Physically, it was identical to the floppy, black leather-bound zip up Bible from my grandmother, a Bible with red letters denoting sayings from Jesus, but that is where the resemblance stopped.
Professor Holmes introduced me to a Bible that always requires interpretation and demands more of us than a literal and flattened reading. Then, he handed me a toolkit with which to interpret the Bible. This was a Bible that did not require a safety shield to guard it against my critical and probing questions. In fact, this Bible welcomed my questions and introduced me to a God who in the person of Jesus relishes our questions and embraces our doubts. It was the first time for me that the Bible was treated not like a holy icon or a static piece of wood. This course was the beginning of my understanding of the Bible switching from black and white to living color.
In class after class, the biblical witness came alive and I entered into a story that I could finally claim as my own story. It was not unlike when a scuba diver sees the ocean at sunset and concludes that the world could not be any more beautiful than at that moment only then to dive down into the depths of the ocean and discover a whole new, even more beautiful world.
Starting my freshman year and continuing over my years at William and Mary, I took courses in the classical Greek language, taught by Professor Louis Ledbetter. When he learned that I was considering attending Seminary after college, his amusement level soared. In mock tribute to this future preacher, each semester he would add a New Testament book to his syllabus. He would add these biblical books that were written in koine or a less classical form of the Greek language, mainly for their “silliness” – his words.
Ironically, as I learned Greek and would later learn Hebrew, I found myself loving a Bible that I never knew as a child or a youth. It is not that someone has to be familiar with the original biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek and some Aramaic to appreciate the Bible, but for me, reading the original languages forced me to slow down, pay attention, hear nuances in Scripture that are hard to capture in English.
The two biblical stories for today remind us that Scripture is central to our faith and that there is no reading of the Bible that does not require interpretation. The story told in Nehemiah is a pre-Jesus revival story. Back from Babylon, trying to sort out life after exile, Nehemiah tells his people that it is time for some Bible study. The people are trying to make a living, build new homes, reconnect with family long separated, but Nehemiah says that what they really need is some Bible study to remind them of who has named them and claimed them. He goes so far as to suggest that part of the reason they landed in Babylon in the first place was because they stopped reading their holy story, stopped studying the Torah or worse, thought it was arcane, irrelevant, or silly.
Some years later, preaching his first sermon, Jesus leads an adoring crowd in the synagogue in some Bible study. He reads from the prophet Isaiah in which God promises to send a suffering servant to set the captives free, to free those who are blind, and to bring good news to the poor. Then Jesus preaches one of the shortest sermon on record when he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
People do not break into applause when his sermon is over, ecstatic that the hometown boy made good. No, they are incensed. They want to know: Who is this carpenter’s son to have the audacity to interpret Scripture to us? What are his credentials? Who is he to even imply that he is the promised one of God? Jesus fields their questions by engaging in some good old fashioned Bible study. Clearly, Isaiah was not writing specifically about Jesus of Nazareth but about the promised Messiah of God. In a new time and a new context, Jesus interprets the prophet’s words for a new audience.
The story of the people of God as told throughout the books of the Bible is not monochromatic or mindless, simple or simplistic. It is challenging to understand, full of mystery, written in many different literary genres, and often told with an entirely different accent than our own. Even so, the story told within the pages of this sturdy Bible is our story. And it can withstand serious study and hard questions and like the angel at Jabbok, if we wrestle with God, through the written word of Scripture, it will bless us.
In a few minutes, Renee and John and Linda will be asked the same question asked of every person to be ordained as a ruling elder or a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, USA. I will ask them: Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you? When they say “I do,” they will be claiming our story, promising to listen to and be shaped by that story.
When people ask me why they should carve out precious time to join an Adult Bible Study or engage in studying the Bible at home, I tell them because a blessing awaits them. When skeptics ask me how someone with my intelligence and at my age would waste his time studying the Bible, I tell them that I waste a lot of time, but it is not when I engage in the study of Scripture, and, because a blessing awaits me every time I do.
In college, I never joined the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, but I am grateful to them for pushing me to struggle with the Bible, to learn to love it, to sit prayerfully beside it, to wrestle with it unabashedly, and to listen to it patiently until the Spirit of God doses out yet another blessing.
So, if someone comes up to you and asks you, “Why do you bother reading the Bible in 2019? or asks, “Why do you get up early on Sunday to listen to Gary and Andy lead a Bible study” look at them and say, “Because I am heading off to claim my story and your story. Want to come?”