†† ††GODíS MIRROR: SCRIPTUREíS FUNCTION
† Third of three Bible sermons, based on I Cor 13/James 1, preached Jan 29, 2012
How ought we to interpret the Bible? Thatís the topic of the current sermon series. Two weeks ago I suggested that the sprawling, often puzzling collection of stories that make up the Bible is best understood as a grand, untidy narrative about God, in particular, Godís determined desire to reach out to, redeem, and restore a world that has rebelled against him. Approaching Scripture as an account of Godís restoration project helps us understand why the Bible includes not only stories that depict a holy God, but stories that depict humans as anything but. Youíd expect both types of story to be included in Scripture if itís an account of Godís mission to a mixed-up world. Last week we followed this up with the report in Luke 24 of Jesus telling his disciples that the focal point of all Scripture is the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesusí death and resurrection. The Old Testament points towards that; the New Testament points back. But while itís helpful to know Scriptureís framework and know that Jesus is its focus, we still need to know: how does Scripture function in our lives?
Scripture functions in many ways, of course. The Psalm 119 verses we read celebrate how Godís Word functions as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path; Jesus likened Godís Word to seeds that when sown and allowed to grow, will produce a good harvest in us; the Book of Hebrews says that Godís Word is like a sword, able to pierce through our resistance and reach our conscience. But thereís yet another biblical metaphor found in the letters of both the Apostles James and Paul that describes how Scripture functions; these texts indicate that Scripture acts as a mirror.
You may be unaware that Scripture even mentions the word mirror. It does, and in doing so, it suggests that Scripture, like a mirror, has the ability to reflect the truth, to reflect how things really are. In ancient times, mirrors were made of polished metal rather than glass. Such mirrors were effective nevertheless, and assiduously consulted by beautiful people, less so by the blemished. Thatís still true. Mirrors are favored by those whom they flatter, avoided by those of us who donít want to be reminded of what they reflect...wrinkles, receding hairlines, expanding waistlines. The Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon was once dining in a restaurant. As he ate, he noticed a angry-looking man across the dining-room scowling at him every time he looked his way. Annoyed, Spurgeon got up to find out what the manís problem was, only to realize† as he stood up that the angry man heíd been looking at wasnít another man but his own reflection in a vast mirror. Whether we like it or not, a mirror tells the truth by reflecting whatís in front of it. Scripture is meant to function like that.
Letís look at how the Book of James thinks of Scripture as a mirror. The Book of James is a brief tract in which the Apostle James expresses his disgust at false piety. By that he meant the sort of Christians who, aware of another personís difficulty, respond with the question: ďHave you prayed about it?Ē James had no time for the sort of piety that refused to get off its knees and do the right thing. Faith, wrote James, isnít a matter of just believing the right thing; itís about doing the right thing.
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers...for if any are hearers of the word
and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror...and...
immediately forget what they were like [James 1:22]
James is thinking of people who like church, who enjoy hearing the Word being read and preached, but who have no intention of letting the Word of God change them. Theyíre forever hearing, hearing, hearing, but never doing, doing, doing. Like people who merely glance at themselves in a mirror, afraid that if they linger, they wonít like what they see, so there are people, says James, who give Scripture a superficial place in their lives, never lingering long enough to allow it, like a mirror, to examine them,† scrutinize their lives and reveal what needs to be changed.
God intends Scripture to be a mirror that reflects back to us what weíre like. Thatís its function. But do you allow the Bible to do that? Take the Ten Commandments for an example. They begin with God saying: ĎYou shall have no other god before meí. That ought to make us check ourselves out as we would in a mirror. How do we look in light of that commandment? Do we give God first place in our thinking and acting? Do we allow God to set our priorities? Or again, remembering Jesusí summary of the law as loving God and loving neighbour, how do we look in that mirror? If weíll linger with it, that sort of text, like a mirror, tells us where we need to change.
A word spoken by the prophet Nathan to King David, recorded in II Samuel 12, is a stunning example of Godís Word functioning as a mirror. Nathan told David a story about a rich landowner, who, hostin a feast for his friends, roasted not one of his own lambs, but stole the only lamb that one of his poor neighbouring farmer owned. ďThe man who has done this deserves to dieĒ, said David. ďYou are the manĒ, said Nathan. Hearing Godís word of judgment spoken directly to him, David immediately saw himself as in a mirror, and realized that though he had everything that money could buy, heíd stolen Bathsheba, the wife of an neighbouring soldier, and, when threatened with exposure of his adultery, had to have that soldier-husband killed in battle.
Week by week in church and day by day at home, if weíll meditate on it long enough, we too can experience the Bible as a mirror reflecting where weíre at. In its light, we discover not only how far we fall short of what God wants of us, but we may also discover that weíre making progress. A mirrorís judgment isnít always negative. Which means that though the Bible sometimes points an accusing finger, on other days it† says to us, ďWell done, good and faithful servantĒ. The one thing you can rely on is that as Godís mirror, Scripture never lies.
Jamesís point is that Scripture functions as a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected. But Scripture also has the capacity to be a mirror in which God is reflected. Thatís the point Paul makes in I Corinthians 13:12.
...for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now
I know in part; then I will fully know, even as I have been fully known.
What does this mirror text mean? Most people remember I Corinthians 13 as the New Testamentís delightful passage about love, and so itís read at almost every wedding service. Fair enough! But Paul didnít originally write I Corinthians 13 as a wedding text. To figure out why he did write it, we need to know that the Corinthian Church was the most troubled church written about in the New Testament. It was a divided church, made up of cliques. In-fighting had become so pervasive that some church members were taking other members to court. Even more damaging, some cliques thought they were spiritually superior to the rest. The worst types, apparently, were those who had the gift of speaking in tongues. They thought theyíd arrived, and that they had a hotline to God that gave them knowledge denied to the rest of the church. Paul addresses this charismatic clique in the opening lines of I Corinthians 13: ĎIf I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not loveí, writes Paul, Ďif I... understand all mysteries and all knowledge...but do not have love, I gain nothingí.
With rhetorical flourish, Paul puts at least one Corinthian clique in its place! But he goes further. He argues that none of us, no matter how spiritually advanced we think we are, have direct, unmediated access to, and knowledge of God. ĎFor now, for nowí, says Paul, as long as weíre on this earth, our access to God and knowledge of God is indirect and limited. ĎFor nowí, he writes, Ďwe see [God as] in a mirror, dimly, not yet Ďface to faceí. For now, God comes to us reflected in Scripture. When you look in a mirror, youíre not looking directly at you; youíre looking at a reflection of you, an image of you. So it is with God. We donít yet see God face to face, says Paul. One day we will, but for now, we see Godís reflection in Scripture, as in a mirror.
What do we see of God when we look at how Scripture mirrors him? We see God from beginning to end, being gracious, creating us in his image as people whom he can love and trust and with whom he can partner. We also see God distressed by our refusal to be his partners, and yet refusing to give up on us. We see God at work, judging our failures, but also redeeming our failures through Jesus. Over and over, we see God in all his holiness loving unholy people, forgiving, forgetting, and forging a new creation, begun in Jesus. All of this and more, Scripture mirrors to us so that we can know God.
However, and this is Paulís point in I Corinthians 13, we donít yet fully know God; we canít make God out fully in the mirror of Scripture. That will have to wait. And† that being the case, writes Paul to the spiritually arrogant, donít pretend that you have perfect knowledge of God already. For heavens sake, learn some humility! And while youíre at it, learn not to talk like your present knowledge of God, gained through the mirror of Scripture, is infallible. That conceit has often been the cause of disaster and division in the church. Undoubtedly thereís much in how Scripture mirrors God that is perfectly clear, and how thankful we are for the light of Godís word. But much remains a mystery. Thatís how it is, says Paul, until the day when Godís creation is perfectly restored, and Godís people are perfectly redeemed, and we see God and know God, face to face. Until then, I urge you to pay sustained attention to Scripture. Itís framework is Godís mission; itís focus is Godís Messiah; itís function? To be Godís mirror.