As the world struggles with the effects of COVID-19, and as the USA engages in one of the most vitriolic election seasons in history, I’ve been taking stock of the ways in which my life of faith has changed/grown/matured in the past three decades. I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in October of 1990, and every now and then I wonder what that kid would think of the person I’ve become. This series of messages is not intended to twist anyone else’s mind into thinking exactly the way that I think, but rather to indicate my core belief that a faith that is alive and growing will, of necessity, evolve and change. My hope is that in this series of sermons, I can model the fact that change is typical and growth is the normative state for followers of Jesus. On Sunday October 18 we considered the ways in which we are called to receive the Word of God – how we understand the Bible to be authoritative. In so doing, we dwelled with these scriptures: Numbers 21:4-9 and Matthew 5:17-20.
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[Singing]: The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me! I stand upon the Word of God – the B-I-B-L-E!
Did anyone else grow up singing that song? I’m here to tell you that I love the Bible, and always have. As a child I was told stories from the Bible, I was encouraged to respect it and even memorize parts of it because, well, the Bible is the Word of God, right?
When I was 14 and participating in the Confirmation Class, my parents got me a Bible of my very own – a genuine Morocco leather-lined, red-letter, King James version. I want to tell you that I was on that book like white on rice. I mean, there are highlights, underlinings, and all kinds of markings that underscore my desire to find ANSWERS in that Bible. I used the center column cross-references, I bought a concordance, and I honestly looked to find out everything I needed to know in this book which I perceived to be the inerrant, infallible, unchanging Word of God.
Maybe you remember back in the 1990’s there was a series of books entitled “Magic Eye”. These contained images that, if you looked at them just right, you could see the one, true, hidden picture behind all the other colors. That’s how I treated the Bible – I squinted and stared and underlined and pored over it so that I would know The Truth.
And it paid off in many ways. When I entered Seminary, like all of my classmates, I had to take the “Bible Content Examination” – a 100-question test designed to measure whether students have a grasp of, well, the contents of the Bible. I scored so high that several of my classmates teased me that I must have cheated somehow.
And yet, even as I dwelt on the Word, there were cracks that had begun to appear for me. In my senior year of High School the school districts of Wilmington, DE were ordered by the courts to desegregate by means of busing students from predominately Black areas into those that were White, and vice-versa. I was shocked to see that people I loved were using Bible verses in arguments on both sides of that issue.
As a young man, I struggled to make sense of the sexual ethics in the Bible. I was looking for some key verses that talked about purity, but the more I came to know about the lives of the folks that we call “saints”, the messier things got (more about that next week!).
When I rifled through the pages of the Bible to find safe and easy answers to some of my biggest questions – why did my friend have to die? What should be done about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor? Why have so many wars consisted of Christians from one place marching into another place and killing people there? – well, I found that there weren’t many easy answers in this book.
At the same time, I was advancing in my status in the Church. I was ordained as a Deacon, and began to work as a “professional Christian”. I was called as a pastor, and given flowing robes and colorful stoles and one day, I woke up and realized that if there was anyone with whom I ought to be comparing myself in the Bible, it was the established Religious Authorities – the people who had been trained and who were trusted; the ones, in fact, about whom Jesus warned his followers in Matthew 5. The people who were in some ways my closest role models in Scripture were the ones who looked at this carpenter, this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth, and scoffed that he was soft on Scripture, that he didn’t value or recognize the commandments and the prophets.
I didn’t like that feeling, but the people who condemned Jesus were the ones who knew all the answers; who had all the commentaries; who could read a verse and then say, “Well, you know, in the original language, the implication was…”; these were the people who totally aced the Bible Content Examination (although, to be fair, is was shorter back then… I crushed it when there were TWO Testaments).
And Jesus looked at his followers, a motley group of fishermen, tax collectors, and revolutionaries, and said to them, “You have got to do better. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the religious leaders, you’re sunk.”
What does that mean? That all followers of Jesus have to go to Seminary, memorize the Bible, and quote it back on demand? That’s not the strategy that the disciples and the early church employed. Jesus seemed to be suggesting that perhaps there was a better way of reading, hearing, and knowing the Word of God.
You see, the Scribes and the Pharisees saw the Bible as a rule book or a checklist. Brian McLaren talks about this as a “constitutional” reading of the Bible – we examine it for precedents, check for loopholes, and make sure that everyone is obeying the letter of the law. Yet when we treat the Bible that way, we wind up finding it quite easy to enshrine the things that we appreciate and ignore those that are inconvenient; more than that, we are tempted to weaponize the Word of God – the strategy that led to the execution of Jesus, for instance.
So I began to wonder, what if the Bible is not intended to be a rulebook or a judicial code telling us what we would and would not tolerate, and what we could and could not get away with? What if the Bible is a story that invites us to consider who and whose we are and how to live in the world that surrounds us? What if the Bible is an account of how people tried to hear the Word of God and to live into it in the midst of their own situations?
Look, I don’t want to brag, but I have to say that this is probably the best sermon on Numbers chapter 21 that you’re going to hear in 2020. Let’s look at the text.
There’s a pretty clear description of both the Word of the Lord and human experience in these few verses. God, as you probably heard, has acted by delivering the People of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt. The people, on the other hand, don’t like everything that they perceive God to have done, and they start to bellyache. Actually, the Hebrew word here means literally, that the people behaved like “chowderheads” (no, actually, it doesn’t – I’m just messing with you on that one). But it’s clear that the people have left God’s intention and are walking toward death when they look up at Moses and say, “Hey, Moses, we’re dying here!”
God’s word could not be any more clear: Moses is commanded to fashion a serpent out of bronze, and put it on a pole, and instruct the people to use that serpent in their worship and daily lives. The people who believe what Moses says and who actually do this are the people who live; the folks who don’t trust Moses or ignore God’s word and refuse to look at the serpent are the people who die. Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen a depiction of a snake on a pole painted on the side of an ambulance or out in front of a hospital, this passage is where that practice began.
I hope that you can agree that this is a pretty clear illustration of a place where God says, “Look – do this. This is the right thing to do. In fact, you have to do this thing TODAY in order to live.” Does that make sense?
Great. Now let’s fast forward about 700 years. During this time our escaped slaves have arrived in the Promised Land, conquered it, and set up a government. For a while, it’s rocky, and then they get on a roll. But sooner or later things start to go downhill, and the leadership has abandoned its commitment to following the Lord. The folks on the throne look less and less like David and Solomon and more and more like Ahaz and Jezebel. But then, in II Kings 18 (by the way, when is the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers AND II Kings? I mean, you’re going to have to tell your friends about this one), a new king arrives on the scene. Let’s check it out in my Confirmation Class Bible:
Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem…And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. (II Kings 18:1-3)
OK! All right! NOW we’re getting somewhere, aren’t we? After a slew of losers, we’re getting a good king – a king who “does what is right in the eyes of the Lord”. So how do we know that? Fortunately, the author of II Kings helps us out here:
He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him. (II Kings 18:4-5)
You see: the most prominent act by which Hezekiah demonstrates that he is a faithful leader who is attentive to the Word of God is this: he destroys the bronze serpent that Moses had been commanded to make. Why did he do this? Because this bronze serpent had become an idol that was killing the faith of the people.
So, beloved: what’s the Biblical position on bronze serpents? Is this snake on a stick a symbol and reminder of a clear command from YHWH – “Do this, exactly this, and you will live” – and thereby a source of life?
OR is the serpent a threat to faithful living and an enemy of the truth and thereby an agent of death?
The answer, of course, is yes. A literal reading of the Bible will give us answers that are diametrically opposed to each other when it comes to the question of what to do with bronze serpents.
But what if we read it another way? What if the stories of the snake are the same, and in fact a single story? What if in Numbers 21 the serpent is a symbol of trust and faith, and the people are encouraged to look to this symbol as a way of demonstrating their willingness to follow God’s leading? And what if in II Kings 18, the snake becomes a warning against trusting in anything other than God – and in particular an indicator of the evil of worshiping a creature, rather than the Creator?
We can see this reading of Scripture fairly easily if – and only if – we are willing to step back from the words that are actually on the page and seek to learn the heart, spirit, and purpose of the One who inspired those words.
Listen: my call, your call, and the call to the entire assembly of God’s people is not to memorize a rule book and carry it around with us like some sort of ecclesiastical referees who will throw flags on people who deviate from our interpretation of that which someone understood God to be saying in his or her own context two languages, three continents, and two thousand years ago!
The call to God’s people now – as it was to those followers on the Galilean hillside in Jesus’ day is this: fulfill the Law and the prophets. The role of the church is to make the Divine Intent visible, palpable, and present in our own day and age. We cannot memorize it and pretend as if we live as a wandering group of exiles in the Bronze Age or a subjugated people in the Roman Empire. We are called to discern where God is working in our own day and age and to bring the eternal truths of God’s purpose to light right here and right now.
The Bible is never a weapon, but it is always an invitation. If I’m using scripture in order to beat someone up, then I’m using it incorrectly.
British theologian N. T. Wright has compared the Bible to the beginnings of a classic play by, say, William Shakespeare. He writes,
Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide…such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare…to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
…Among the detailed moves available within this model…is the possibility of seeing the five acts [of Scripture] as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well…of how the play is supposed to end.
Do you get what he’s saying here? That the Bible never pretends to tell all of God’s story – rather, it brings us up to where we enter into the story – and now it’s up to us to engage with both what has come before us as well as with what surrounds us and live with integrity and love. We take the story that we have received seriously and lovingly, and then we live into our part of that story!
The Bible that I have loved for all my life is much more than a code of rules to follow or a script to memorize. It is a story that engages me, equips me, challenges me, and transforms me. In reflecting on the power of story, one writer has said, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In thinking about the Bible this way, the late Rachel Held Evans said, “In those first, formative years of my life, before I knew or cared about culture wars or genre categories or biblical interpretation, this is what Scripture taught me: that a boat full of animals can survive a catastrophic flood, that seas can be parted and lions tamed, that girls can be prophets and warriors and queens, that a kid’s lunch of fish and bread can be multiplied to feed five thousand people.”
The Bible isn’t here to make you feel bad about yourself or lead you to condemn your neighbor. The Bible isn’t a self-help book that will tell me how to get to heaven in four easy steps. The book that I love is a story – it’s The Story – that invites me to find new avenues to praise God and challenges me to look for places in our world where God is present and which calls me to live my life as an invitation to all of creation to live into God’s best each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 See A New Kind of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010), chapter 8.
 “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”, Liang Lecture at Regent College (Vancouver, BC, 1989) https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/0ec91-howcanthebiblebeauthoritative.pdf
 Neil Gaiman, Coraline (HarperCollins, 2002), epitaph.
 Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (Nelson Books, 2018), p. xxi.