†† GODíS MISSION: SCRIPTUREíS FRAMEWORK
† Sermon I of 3 on the Bible, based on II Timothy 3:10-17, preached Jan 15, 2012
Today I begin a series of three sermons on the Bible, hoping they will help us better understand it. Iím mad to attempt this, knowing that a massive number of massive books have been written on the subject, most of which Iíve never read! Yet thinking about the Bible is timely, for we tend to take it for granted. We happily treat the Bible is a special book, and read it solemnly in church every Sunday; yet many are shy of reading the Bible for themselves, afraid they wonít understand it.
How ought we to read the Bible? Iíll eventually get to that. But I begin with this: our lives are shaped by stories. I listen to your stories regularly, chiefly about your family, illustrated by photographs of children and grandchildren. What youíre telling me, of course, is how important family is to you. Itís family for which we work and sacrifice; itís family that gives us identity and significance. Which is why death and divorce in the family have the power to cause an identity crisis and loss of significance. Family is the story by which we live, a framework that helps us make sense of the world.
But if you think about it, there are even larger stories shaping our lives. An example: three hundred years ago a story took hold in Europe, then North America, that goes something like this: the age of faith is over; the age of reason has arrived. Mature humans no longer need God because we now have the rational ability to make wise decisions and build a better society. The storyís mantra was the word progress; itís chief doctrine, belief in unlimited human possibilities, typified a century ago by the Belfast boast that the great Titanic was unsinkable. If such technological confidence was one form of the deeply-held story of human progress, Marxismís belief that class warfare would lead to a utopian society was another.
In the course of the twentieth century, historyís most violent, belief in the ability of† this story of progress to provide a framework by which to understand the world began to slip. Many now believe that thereís no grand story that makes sense of life, no framework that explains the nature of the world. Ironically, the belief that thereís no grand story of meaning is itself becoming a new postmodern story we must believe.
One story still widely believed, however, is what Walter Brueggemann calls the Modern-Industrial-Scientific story; some call it the American dream. It claims that Ďknowledge is power and...that life consists is acquiring enough knowledge to control and predict our worldí. Here, says Brueggemann,
everyone and everything is valued for his or her usefulness...Such an
understanding...places a high value on competence and achieving, on
success and getting ahead...Those who earn little and therefore deserve
little do not figure...[this story] does not appreciate graciousness, for everything
is earned. It is not open to mystery, for everything must be explained.
Whether we realize it or not, this story shapes us. Itís this rat-race story that makes the successful constantly feel anxious, the less successful feel like losers, and retired folk feel useless. Is it the best story we can come up with to shape our lives?
With that in mind, I suggest that we approach Scripture as an alternative grand story, a framework by which to understand the world in which we live. Now as you know, the Bible is full of stories. Some of those stories we like-the parable of the prodigal son, the Christmas story, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. But thatís not what I mean by suggesting that we think of the Bible as story. The Bible isnít primarily a collection of nice stories; it contains nice stories; it also contains not so nice stories. Indeed itís when we treat the Bible as a collection of spiritually-inspiring stories that we get disappointed with many of them, wonder why some of them are included, and then avoid them, especially Old Testament ones.
Others think of the Bible, not as a collection of stories but as a book of rules. In this view, the Bibles tell you what to do and what not to do, with clergy acting as Godís police officers enforcing the rules. Well the Bible certainly contains rules, but thereís so much more than that. Yet others figure that the Bible isnít so much a book of rules or stories but a book of doctrine. So they sort through the stories, nice and not so nice, distilling a list of doctrines that Christians must believe. Again the Bible contains doctrine. But if the Bible was meant to provide a list of doctrines, why did God, as II Timothy 3 teaches, inspire a lengthy, complicated, historical, biblical narrative?
We need a more integrated way of reading the Bible. I suggest that we think of it as† a grand story focusing on God. Tom Wright puts it like this: Scripture, he says, Ďoffers a story which is the story of the whole worldí. What he means is that the Bible not only contains stories but is itself a grand story providing a framework by which to understand the world. The story begins in Genesis with the creation of all things by God and ends in Revelation with the renewal or recreation of all things by God. According to the Bible, thatís the framework we need to make sense of life. Behind us and history, God! Beyond us and history, God! In between that beginning and ending, the Bible offers an untidy, complex narrative of human goodness gone awry, with God committed unconditionally to redeeming and restoring us.
In this view, the Bible isnít a collection of moral stories, rules or doctrines, but one story. As a Indian Hindu scholar once said:
I canít understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us...as a book
of religion. It is not a book of religion...we have plenty of books of religion
....We donít need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of
universal history, the history of the whole creation and the history of the
human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a
responsible actor in history...
Thinking of the Bible as a grand story or drama, we might divide it into five acts. If Act 1 is about Godís creation, Act 2 is the story of how humans turned away from God. Act 3 is the story of Godís people Israel, chosen to be bearers of blessing to a rebellious world. Act 4 is the story of Jesus, who succeeds where Israel failed. And Act 5 is the story of the church witnessing to the world of how God through Jesus redeems the world and will bring in the new creation.
Though I said earlier that we should consider the Bible as a book about God, I need to refine that point, because the Bible isnít primarily interested in giving us insider information about God; itís not a book about divine metaphysics. What the Bible does focus on is how and why God interacts with us; it focuses on Godís purposes, plans and mission to change us, and the world. Rather than conveying moral, religious, or doctrinal information, the Bible, says Tom Wright, is the story of Godís powerful love let loose in the world, first through Israel, then Ďthrough Jesus and the Spirit and aimed at the healing and renewal of all creationí. This is what the Apostle Paul gets at in II Timothy 3. Scripture, he says, is inspired by God, not chiefly as history, literature,† primitive science, or timeless philosophy. Scripture was inspired, he writes to Timothy, Ďto instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesusí.
I find this approach to the Bible as story helpful. First, looking at the Bible as the story of Godís mission sheds light on the Old Testament. Looked at through a missional lens, the Old Testament begins with mission. Godís command in† Genesis 1 that we fill the earth and subdue it, is actually God delegating responsibility to us for creation. But the bleak narrative of Genesis 3-11 that follows, reveals how humans resist that responsibility. So in Genesis 12, God starts again, calls Abraham, blesses him and his family, so that they can share Godís blessing to the nations. The rest of the Old Testament is largely an account of Israelís failure to do that. Yet God wonít give up, and so sends his Son. In other words, understanding the Bible as the story of Godís mission in the world helps connect the Old Testament to the New.
Reading the Bible as the story of Godís mission also helps me face the shocking bits of Scripture. I refer to those Bible stories that portray cheating and slavery, rape and murder, and every wickedness ever invented. What are they doing in Scripture if Scripture is considered a collection of morally-improving tales? An embarrassment! But what if Scripture is instead a messy narrative of how life really is, reflective of the sinfulness which God is determined to confront and heal? It means that we can read Scripture for what it is, a mixed bag of human arrogance and divine forbearance, human evil and divine grace. This way, we can admit without embarrassment that thereís much in Scripture† weíre canít emulate nor were ever meant to emulate.
Again, reading Scripture as the story of Godís mission helps clarify what Christians are supposed to be doing, and how the Bible can help us do it. I return to Tom Wright once more. Imagine, he says, that a lost Shakespeare play is discovered. Although the play originally had five Acts, only the first four Acts are found, and a fraction of the fifth. The unfinished play is then given to a company of actors who are asked to work out the rest of Act 5 for themselves. How would they do that, asks Wright. By immersing themselves in Shakespeareís text up until Act 5, paying great attention to his plot and purpose, allowing them to shape the conclusion the actors will improvise.
That, says Wright, is where Christians are at when it comes to the Bible. The Bible is the story of Godís mission to the world, a drama in five Acts...the story of creation, the story of the fall into sin, the story of Israel, the climactic story of Jesus, and the story of the churchís witness to the ends of the earth. But Act 5 is incomplete, and we Christians are invited to be Ďthe actorsí who will improvise its ending; that is, witness to Jesus in the world until he returns and redemption is complete. To that end, we faithfully use Scripture as a guide for our Ďperformanceí. Itís the script to which we pay attention so that we deeply understand Godís plan and purpose.
I donít pretend that one sermon of mine on the Bible will remove your reluctance to read it or transform your interpretation of it. But stay tuned, and keep reading.