In 1604, James I of England came up with the idea of producing an English-language translation of the Bible that would allow the Anglicans and the Puritans to find some common ground (and perhaps, not inconsequentially, get both groups off his back for a while). The result of that suggestion was published in 1611 and we know it as The Authorized, or King James Version of the Bible. 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of this event, and I will be preaching a series of messages rooted in the more than 250 idioms that are a part of our English Language today as a result of this work.
The message for Sunday, August 28, is rooted in Genesis 1:1-5 and the phrase “Let there be light”.
If I were to ask you what the current best-selling book in the USA is, would you want to hazard a guess? Right now, Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help tops most of the lists. It has sold more than 5,000,000 copies. In fact, earlier this month, that book became first title ever to sell more than a million copies on Amazon’s Kindle. That’s a lot of books. 5 million.
That’s today’s best-seller. I have a hunch you know what the best selling book of all time is: The Bible. Specifically, the King James Version of the Bible, which has sold between 5 and 6 billion copies since it was published in 1611. That’s a thousand times more than the publishing phenomenon we know as The Help.
Do you have a King James? I mean, with 6 billion copies lying around, chances are you could lay your hands on one, right? Do you read it? Do you know it? Or is the King James Bible the most popular book that nobody reads?
The KJV is getting a lot of publicity in 2011 as it celebrates its 400th birthday. Take a look at this brief clip that begins to explore the impact of that translation on our language:
You might not be surprised to hear your pastor say that the King James Bible is an important book. But what about Richard Dawkins, who is perhaps the world’s most famous atheist? When he read a chapter from the Book of Ruth for a YouTube Bible project, Dawkins said, “It is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.” Yes, that’s right. We’ve got to keep those religious people away from the bible. The King James version is, arguably, the most influential book in the English Language. As that video demonstrated, there are hundreds of idioms in contemporary English that come straight from this translation. In the next few weeks, we will be looking at a few of those words and phrases in the context of their position in the King James Bible and then trying to see what, if any, the impact of those passages on our own lives might be.
The first words that God speaks, according to Genesis, are yehiy ‘or. We could translate that as “let light exist” or “allow light to come into being”, but we know it best as “let there be light.”
“Let there be light” is a phrase that permeates our world. Classical authors, like Alexander Pope and Victor Hugo, have used that phrase. In a Star Trek book, Captain Jean-Luc Picard opens a bottle with that message scrawled inside. Episode 6:13 of Sex In The City was given this title, as was a 1946 movie produced by the Army and directed by John Huston. “Let there be light” is the name of a brand of matches sold in Brazil. The Latin translation, Fiat Lux, is on the seal or in the motto of dozens of colleges and universities, including Waynesburg University. “Let there be light” has become a way of expressing a desire to bring new clarity or understanding to a problem or situation.
For our purposes, of course, we want to consider that phrase in its original context. Do you remember what your mother told you: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”? Well, this is the first impression we get of God in Scripture. As the Bible describes God’s creative acts and intention, showing how God is bringing order from chaos, this is the first thing that God says. In the beginning – whenever that was – whatever was there was formless, meaningless, and purposeless. And God’s speaking light into existence is the first in a series of creative acts in which God brings shape, meaning, and purpose to the cosmos. “Let there be light” are the words God uses so that we might know that God is opposed to disorder and is instead the author of meaning and beauty.
And, of course, it’s not just Genesis that uses metaphors of light and speech. The Bible is filled with passages that use these images to signify the purpose and direction of God.
Psalm 119 tells us that God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
John 1 introduces Jesus of Nazareth by telling us first that he is the Word of God, and later that he is the Light.
Later, in John 8, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” and Matthew tells us that Jesus points to his followers and says, “You are the light of the world” – a statement that has been taken to heart by the group of people here at CHUP who have developed the SHINE initiative for our ministry and our building. Today’s second scripture lesson, from 2 Peter 1:12-21, also conveys images of light and the word. Listen for the Word of the Lord.
12 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Do you see what is happening in the pages of Scripture? God’s intentions are first expressed in Word and Light. We later understand that light to be seen clearly in Jesus, and now in fact we are given to understand that the words of Bible are themselves, in some way, light.
Is that true? Is this book sufficiently reliable and authoritative so that it can not only describe how God worked to bring order to chaos to a meaningless cosmos, but the Bible can in some way become the Word of God that brings order to my chaotic life? Do the words that are contained on these pages provide us with some way to see meaning and purpose in our own existence, even when the edges of that existence are alive with fear, with chaos, or with disorder?
In other words, do we need a light to help us find meaning for life? And if we do, can we find that kind of light in a book? And if we can, is the Bible that book? And if it is, how do we glean such meaning from the Bible? I mean, if it is possible that this volume can shed some light on our lives, how do we realize that?
First, we must get to know it. This may sound very cliché, but it’s the truth: unless we know it, there is no way that it can impact who we are or will become. So how do you get to know the Bible? Well, if you wanted to get to know The Help (along with 5 million of your friends), what would you do? You’d read it, right? Maybe you’d go to Amazon.com or the New York Times and read a couple of reviews that might point out some aspects of the story that you missed. In the same way, we are called to simply know the Bible. To read it personally and when we come together. To discuss it so that your ideas might inform me, and mine might shed a little light on your life, so to speak…
But knowing it isn’t enough. I’ve told the story before of the man who was locked in a dungeon for decades with only a Bible for a companion. Every time the guards saw him, he was reading the Bible, making notes, scribbling away…and when he died, they found his notes. They said something like, “The Bible has 31,102 verses and 788,258 words.” “The longest verse in the Bible is Esther 8:9. The shortest verse is John 11:35.” This man knew everything about the book in his cell, but he didn’t know the Bible as the Word or the Light.
We know the Bible so that we might love it. As you read it, hear it, and experience it, look for things that ring true to you. This is one of the true gifts of the King James Version, in my opinion – it is simply beautiful. Nobody really talks like this any more (and they didn’t really talk like this in England in 1611, either), but when you hear phrases like, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…” or “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child,” you are hearing a thing of beauty. In addition to knowing the words of the Bible, look for ways to appreciate the truth and beauty of it.
As you do that, pay attention! Where does what you read and hear make sense? Where does it leave you scratching your head? Why is it confusing you? How does that sound like good (or bad) news to you?
Now, so far, I’ve been talking about the way that you read the Bible as if it were an art appreciation class. You know, you go to the museum and you look at the painting and you say, “Oh, yes, what a bold use of the dark lines there…” Or, “Wow, the painter really captured the essence of mystery in that woman’s face…” In a museum, you wander around and you decide what you like and what you don’t like, and you allow the beauty there to inspire and encourage you.
Yet the Bible’s claim for itself is that it is not only beautiful, but that it is true. It is authoritative. You can go to a museum and see a piece by Picasso and say, “What is he, crazy? That’s not what a woman looks like.” And you can walk out. But according to the Bible, I am not free to say, “One God, schmone God. This is a load of malarkey” and slam the book down. Whereas one reviewer might say that The Betty Crocker Cookbook is the best resource to have in the kitchen and another might suggest that The Joy of Cooking is the ultimate authority, the Bible does not invite us to go out and find another Holy Book and make comparisons. The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and expects me to treat it as such.
And we have to be careful with that, don’t we? I mean, the same Bible that says, “Honor thy father and mother…” and “Love thy neighbor” also mandates that disobedient children receive the death penalty and tells us that the path to hell is lined with cheeseburgers and shrimp scampi. In our knowing and loving of the Scripture, we’ve also got to learn a way of reading it so that we might be able to know how best to live according to its teachings. That means that we’ve got to be in community with each other, so that I can gain from your insight and you from mine; it means that I’ve got to be humble and willing to learn all the time; it means that I’ve got to read the words in a spirit of prayer and teachability. I can do that, but not all the time; I sure don’t read the Post-Gazette or The Help that way.
I sat for an hour or so with Betty Hershberger the other day, and she said, “It’s so hard to believe that the time has gone so quickly. Already, it’s Fall. Time for another new year to begin.” You know that is true. You are on the edge of new challenges and opportunities. You met some people this past week you didn’t know before, and one or two of them might be real friends in a couple of months. You are starting new jobs, or leaving old schools, and you are looking at some scary places and huge holes in your life. You need meaning and purpose in that life.
Beloved, the Good News is that the God who brought light into darkness and order into chaos is still speaking. May you know the grace, the hope, and the joy of God’s light in your life today and in the weeks to come. Let there be light! Let there be light indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.