Not as a Human Word
| Joshua 3:7-17
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
|Sun, October 31, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Back in the days when this Chapel used an ancient sound system I recall yet one more of the school's distinguished guests struggling with a microphone that didn't want to work. Once things
were straightened out he recounted a story about the Anglican Bishop who was invited to speak
to a large gathering in his diocese. Tapping on the microphone the bishop said: "There's something wrong with this mic". To which the gathered congregation out of habit responded:
"And also with you". We have experienced similar moments ourselves. It is our practice to have
the lector conclude the reading of scripture by saying a version of the phrase: "The Word of
God". Imagine then those rare occasions when the lectors conclude instead by announcing "This
is the end of the reading" to which you have, of course, all replied "Thanks be to God"! The first
time it happened Gerald just about fell off of the piano bench in laughter.
Of course, it is not always by accident that lectors change the declaration after the reading of scripture. It is not always self-evident that the words that we find ourselves reading from the
Bible are 'the Word of the Lord'. One need only take a look at this morning's reading from the
Old Testament to realize this. Israel arriving at the Jordan River, border of the Promised Land,
only to find that there is no bridge ... no way across. But never fear, the Ark of the Covenant ... yes, that very same ark that is sought after in Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' ... the Ark of the Covenant when carried into the flood waters of the Jordan stops everything and makes a way for the nation (the entire nation) to cross. We moderns come hoping for a profound ethical 'Word of God' ... 'love your neighbour as yourself' or 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. Instead we get fantastic stories out of the ancient world. Not just that ... we get stories that portray a God who makes room in the land that has been promised to the Hebrew slaves by driving out the inhabitants of the region ... Canaanites, Hittites, Hivities, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. No wonder lectors find themselves stumbling and stammering as they struggle to announce "This is the Word of God".
We're not alone in this. This past week I was asked to review a draft copy of the new Voices
United Worship Resource book. Sure enough, on page 47, there are suggested proclamations to
be made after the reading of scripture. Lines like "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church" or "This is the witness of Israel" or even "May God bless to our understanding this reading from the Holy Scriptures". In all there are seven such suggestions ... not one of which is so 'simplistic' as to bluntly state that this is "The Word of God". Oh yes ... these words might inspire us, might speak to us, might become God's Word for us ... but God's Word whether or not we understand, whether or not we find it agreeable? Isn't it wiser to say that these are human words through which God has spoken in the past and may, we pray, speak again in the present and future? This seems much a more prudent proclamation.
Then along comes Paul. Confounding Paul, saying: "We also constantly give thanks to God for
this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a
human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers". Imagine
the preacher who writes back to his former congregation ... grateful that the people took what he had to say from the pulpit to be a message from God. Such a preacher hardly sounds
appropriately humble. At first blush this sounds like the height of pride. It reminds one of those
European churches with their pulpits perched high, high above the worshippers ... a constant
reminder of the Word coming down from on high.
Yet humility might be precisely the word to describe Paul's utter amazement. Preaching is a
humbling activity. At first it may seem to the ordinand that it is exciting ... even exhilarating. But then there comes the Sunday ... when is it - ten, twelve, fifteen Sundays after ordination ... that you realize that you have nothing else that is interesting to say. You've run out of ideas. One can be sorely tempted to keep searching for ideas that will preach ... and some try. Or, somewhere along the line, the preacher can decide to try something radical. She can stop trying to have new ideas ... decide not to look for interesting things to say in order to 'win over' the congregation. In other words, the preacher can decide to simply preach the story that is given to her week by week in the church's scripture. The task looks straightforward enough - just tell the story in such a way that the people begin to find it describing their own lives and their life together. This, of course, means that the preacher has to try some sleight of hand ... being fully involved in preaching the story in such a way that, at the end, the congregation is not left thinking about how interesting their preacher is but, instead, goes home wondering at how demanding and delightful is their own story. When this 'works' ... when people begin paying more attention to the scripture than to the
preacher ... the word of God is alive.
Like Paul, I find myself giving thanks to God for a congregation of people who take the God's
word for what it is - not a human word, not Ed's opinions on the latest social trend or Ed's
suggestions for living a better life. Just this week I overheard one of the participants in the
Disciple Bible Study program saying that she is surprised to have found herself setting aside her
regular diet of reading - Mordecai Richler and the like - because she is deeply immersed in reading the Old Testament ... and not as a duty but, for the first time, as a joy. Then there is the couple living a long distance relationship who spend time on Sunday afternoon discussing the sermon by long distance telephone. And the woman who emailed from Alberta (a cyberspace member of the congregation), concerned because she could not find last Sunday's sermon on the internet when
she made her weekly visit to our web site. With Paul I wonder at such response. None of us can
force another to take the story of the Bible as the word of God. In arguing against the legislating the recital of the Lord's Prayer in schools a contributor to last month's issue of the United Church Observer wrote: "The Gospel of Jesus Christ is such unparalleled good news, it need never be imposed on anyone." Amen. Next Sunday in Seoul, South Korea I am to preach to a
congregation of two hundred young adults at the Jamsil Jungang Presbyterian Church. Already I
am wondering ... wondering what to say, wondering about why it is that large numbers of Koreans hear the Gospel as such unparalleled good news when equal numbers of Canadians are not flocking to hear the same news. What is it that makes it possible for a people to conclude the reading of scripture saying "This is the Word of God"?
By the way, this is likely to be the focus of my doctoral project over the next two and a half years. In fact I may have discovered the central biblical text for that work this week right here in I Thessalonians chapter two, verse 13: "We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers." Notice what Paul sees ... he sees that when a congregation accepts the gospel as the word of God that this is not the end of the matter. On the contrary, it is only the beginning. Because once accepted as God's word this story goes to work in the life of the community of believers. Once let in, the gospel of God transforms the identity of those who believe it to be true. Paul sees it in Thessalonika. Do you see the signs of God's word "which is also at work in you believers" here? Just what would those signs be? Would they be measured in the sabbath being kept ... with joy filled worship and a day of rest? Yes. Would one look for signs of neighbours near and far being loved? Yes. And more ... much more.
I will confess to being somewhat confounded by it all. How could one ever research the workings
of the word of God? How can one ever account for the reason that one congregation comes to
accept the gospel as the word of God and another takes it to be a human word? Of course, I am
not the only one to wonder about these things. I have heard you wondering, too. Wondering
why one person believes ... and another doesn't. Wondering, perhaps, what it is in you that has
brought you here when there are so many more 'useful' things to do on a Sunday morning.
Wondering why nothing you can say or do could ever convince your child or partner or colleague
of the transforming power and beauty of God. Perhaps you will not be the subjects of my
doctoral project. Perhaps you would be willing to be associates in this research!
And Joshua is as good a place as any to begin. Joshua, with its odd tale of the entry of the
Israelites into the land that has been promised to them ... a land which, remember, will later be
taken from them. The movement of people in and out of the land of Israel is nothing new. It
continues to this day. In fact, human history is essentially the story of the movement, and
resulting displacement, of peoples. This is the tapestry within which God's word is inevitably
woven. The Bible assumes that in a political world it will not be possible for God to sustain and protect a people who will be a light to all the nations without placing them on someone's turf
somewhere. Liberated slaves have to land on some nation's shores. Centuries later their turn will
come ... the Israelites will also be exiled when they no longer bear fruit. We wonder about calling such a human political saga 'the word of God'. Perhaps it is better to simply pray for
Understanding. It literally means to 'stand under'. Yet how often we moderns like to 'stand over' the ancient world. Overstanding. That is where we are so often guilty of standing in relation to God's word. Standing over the Bible, picking and choosing the parts we approve ... discarding that which does not suit our temperament or inclination. But if we are prepared to humbly stand under the words .... to let them make sense of us rather than to think that we can make sense of them ... then it may be that we will come to understand this old story as the living word of God.
That, I imagine, was the mind set of William Williams when some two hundred and fifty years ago
he wrote the words to 'Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah'. Remember the last verse? "When I
tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell's destruction, land me safe on Canaan's side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee." No longer is the book of Joshua about other people in another time and place. Now the crossing of the Jordan lies ahead
of us. It is the impassible river that lies on the other side of death. It is the risky passage that lies ahead of young adults in Korea and in Canada ... the transition from the long testing journey of adolescence into the promised land of maturity. It is the frightening crossing that awaits the Western church ... the one that still lies somewhere off in the unseen future ... the crossing from wilderness wandering into a new and abundant life.
And notice what gets the people across ... what gets us across. The priests carry the Ark of the
Covenant into the river. They carry the Covenant ... the Torah ... the Bible ... into the river. It is the word of God itself which holds back the water so that all the people ... not just the priests, not just the best and the brightest ... including even every last straggler can walk on dry ground into the land of milk and honey. Now you know why the lectors carry the Bible ahead of us into the week ahead. It is this saving word that has the power to hold back the terror of the night and of a darkening season in human history. It is this liberating word that makes even such a scary world as ours God's hallowed creation. Thanks be to God, indeed.