If you have ever played “Simon Says,” raise your hand. Great. Let’s try it. Is everyone willing to give it a shot? Simon Says, touch your nose. Simon says, pull your ear. Etc. etc.
How many are still in? Wow! You are all good at this game! I think we’ll stop before the bitter end! What’s the biggest disappointment in Simon Says? Getting out. Or, maybe even worse, when you don’t think you got out, but someone insists that you did.
A few minutes ago we handed our 3rd Graders their first grown up Bibles. 3rd Graders, raise your hands so I can see you. There you are! I want you to promise me that you will never play Simon Says with your Bibles. Do you know what I mean by that?
Here’s the thing. Sometimes we are tempted to read the Bible to find out “who’s in.” Who does God love most? How can I be assured that God is on my side? And then we use the Bible to tell other people that God is my God and not necessarily yours. Please don’t do that.
One of the greatest things about the Bible is that it is a conversation among people over thousands of years. It has tons of arguments in it about who God is. It has lots of winners and losers and everyone in between. It is full of imperfect people trying to figure out what’s important and why God put us here and what to do about it. You see that book we just gave you is better than any series of books you’ve ever heard of, because the whole series is right there in your hands— 66 books and they’re all written by different people at different times and God is speaking through each and every one. And if you don’t remember anything else from today, remember this: the Bible was written in community, by community, for community. We gave each of you a Bible today and the best thing you can do it is read it with someone and talk about it with as many people as you can find and then listen to what other people hear in it. Because we can’t listen to scripture alone. We have to do it together.
Did you notice I said “listen?” That’s because even though we read the Bible like we read other books, we also listen to the Bible in a way that we don’t listen to other books. What you’re holding in your hands is what we have come to understand as sacred— it is one of the main ways God speaks to us— is through those stories. Listening to the Bible requires time and attention and people to help us because we’re not just trying to figure out what it meant across time and cultures and languages, we’re also trying to listen for how God is speaking to us today through these ancient stories. And God is.
The other thing to keep in mind, is that while the Bible is the primary way that God has chosen to speak to Christians, it is never alone. John Wesley actually chastised his preachers that relied only on the Bible because he believed strongly that there was a unity between all parts of religious authority. Today we call it the Quadrilateral: the Bible is in conversation with our Christian tradition, the reason of our own minds that God has given us, and our experiences of the Holy Spirit. So while we listen to the Bible, we don’t put away what we know from the world we live in. We don’t set aside science or math or art. We don’t come into church forgetting our experience of the world and God’s spirit in it. We aren’t here to proclaim something that makes no sense to us when we leave this building. And we also don’t ignore the vast amounts of hurt and damage that people have caused with the Bible as their weapon. One thing I have always appreciated about the quadrilateral is that it allows for us to tell the stories of horror that have happened when people take the Bible, make God into their own image, and then proceed to create trauma in a world that is already suffering. When we read the Bible, we must recognize that it is foreign to us, that we may not ever understand the original intent, and so realize that God uses tradition, reason, and experience to speak to us as well. There are four parts of understanding, and yet one fullness of truth.
In the reading from Deuteronomy this morning we heard one way of listening to the Bible, and that is to know it so well that pretty soon it begins to read us. For the Israelites, those very early followers of God, they wanted to make sure that the most important part of scripture was in front of them all the time. So on their doorposts, on their foreheads, in their brains as they recited it, these words were in front of them: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And later Jesus added, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” I encourage all of you to memorize some scripture— whether it’s an entire Psalm like Psalm 23, or one verse like the Israelites, there’s a different kind of listening that happens when we get these verses in our bodies, not just in our minds, but in our hearts. It’s one of the reasons people have faith have always sung songs— it’s an easy way to get the Bible into our lives so that the Bible can read us.
And last, but not least, I want to point out that one of the most exciting things about the Bible is that it reminds us that God is still speaking to us. Jesus reminds us of this in our Gospel reading this morning. At the beginning of his ministry, as Jesus comes to his home town of Nazareth, he shows up at a house synagogue on the sabbath. It is a casual kind of gathering, one in which people can share and take turns reading from the Torah, sing songs, and eat together. At this gathering Jesus unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and reads from it. He reads that
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And then he says, “today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” You see we must never forget that our Savior is Jewish. And in the Jewish faith, scripture is not static, it is not the past; it is past, present, and future. Jesus did not say “this happened long ago;” nor did he say, “this will happen in some vague future.” He said, “This is fulfilled in your hearing.” This is who I am. This is who God is. This is who you are. We, who have been called the body of Christ, need to remember that God is fulfilling God’s promises, hopes, and plans for our world, through us in our presence today. The Bible is a very old book; but it is also a new book with new stories to tell; and with our lives to read. So open your Bible and begin listening, and do so with as many questions as you can ask; with as many people as you can find; and listen with your full self— your brain, your heart, your body, your friends, your family, your enemies, the strangers in your life— and then, and perhaps only then, will you be able to listen to God.