Today we begin our Lenten sermon series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. I suspect there are some here who have read the Bible in its entirety, while others have not. If we are honest, I’m thinking we might wish to read scripture more often but life has a tendency to get in the way. Perhaps you have come upon a disturbing passage of scripture that has completely turned you off from ever reading the Bible again. In any case, thank you for being here and joining us as we delve into scripture, wrestle with difficult passages, and seek a greater understanding of this wonderful yet complex book.
As we get started, I wanted to share some questions that have come up concerning reading scripture. I have heard opinions of the Old Testament versus the New Testament concerning how God is depicted. Basically the thought runs to preferring the loving God of the New Testament to the wrathful, vindictive God of the Old Testament. You have to question some of those difficult Old Testament scriptures that require the Israelites to slaughter entire populations, for example. Here’s a quote from the book from a parishioner of Hamilton’s. [Quote book page 4] I don’t think this person is alone in his concerns for the picture painted of God in Old Testament scriptures. Many scientists struggle with the Creation accounts that do not align with scientific explanations for the origins of life on earth. A lawyer approached Hamilton concerning the disagreements in the Gospels concerning the life and events of Jesus’ time on earth. Any lawyer will tell you that when eyewitnesses do not agree on events, they are often considered unreliable. Understand that as we progress through this series we will be wrestling together with how to better understand and apply these writings to our lives today. Some of us may struggle with today’s scripture reading – is Satan a real being? Are we really led into times of temptation?
So what is the Bible? We need to start with what the Bible is not. If we try to see it as an owner’s manual we will be disappointed. This is the owner’s manual for my Honda Civic. It starts with a table of contents, goes through the safety features and identifies all the parts I need to know, then talks about how to operate my car followed by a section on repairs and maintenance, then by a section on troubleshooting – everything from routine maintenance to how to change a tire.
Now I’d like you to pick up your Bible or use one in the pews. The ‘table of contents’ is replaced by a history of a people who lived thousands of years ago. In looking at your Bible, open to the beginning of Genesis, hold one finger there and flip through until you reach the end of the Book of Esther and the beginning of the Book of Job. [pause] This entire section of the Bible follows the story of the nation of Israel. We will look at these passages in more detail next week. If we maintained the ‘owner’s manual’ understanding of the Bible, this entire section would be the Table of Contents. What follows next should be the safety features, but instead we have poetry. Hold your finger on the beginning of the book of Job, and find the end of the Book known as either the Song of Songs or the Songs of Solomon. [pause] These are the poetic writings including the Book of Psalms which we progressed through when we looked at different genres of music. Poetry is anything but a list of safety features! Next, when we should be reading how to operate and maintain our lives, we see a whole slew of books from prophets with a lot of warnings against oncoming danger.
We then get to the New Testament. Take your finger and hold it on the beginning of the book of Matthew and include all 4 gospels plus the book of Acts. [pause] This section includes a lot of information concerning Jesus, his Crucifixion and resurrection, as well as some info on his followers. Now hold your finger from the Book of Romans to just before the book of Revelation. [pause] This section includes 21 letters called the Epistles, “written by people called apostles, to Christians living in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago” (Hamilton, p.8.) We finally get to the section that should include troubleshooting only to be faced with the Book of Revelation with stories of multi-headed beasts. It seems the Bible is NOT like an owner’s manual.
Others view the Bible like a Magic 8 Ball. I couldn’t find one but I do have these very interesting dice. If you ask a question and roll the dice it should give you an adequate answer. [demonstrate] Often we get something that makes no sense. It would be like asking a question of God like, ‘should I quit my job?’ Then you simply open the Bible, point to a scripture and find your answer. Let’s try that. Here’s the question: “Should we add another worship service?” Now open your Bibles anywhere, point to a scripture and see what your answer is. [pause] I’m thinking the Bible is NOT like a Magic 8 Ball.
Scholars have argued the Bible should be a book of systematic theology, “carefully laying out doctrine and dogma in each verse” (Hamilton, p. 8.) If that were true then we should be able to point to scripture that clearly explains the Holy Trinity. We’ve argued a lot about communion style – inclusive, exclusive, leavened or unleavened bread, juice or wine. Wouldn’t it be great if it was carefully outlined in scripture? “Even a chapter giving a complete explanation of the meaning of baptism would be great, but you won’t find that either” (Hamilton, p. 9.) The Bible it seems does NOT function like a book on systematic theology.
Some would love for the Bible to be a scientific text. When pointing to the Creation stories as examples, we find differing accounts in Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2. There are other accounts where we are able to explain things in scientific terms today that were not available at the time of the writings of scripture. We are not required to park our brains at the door and ignore modern scientific breakthroughs in order to maintain our faith because scripture really does NOT read like a science textbook.
One theory is that the Bible reads as if it were a book of promises of God. This one is hard to explain for anyone who has ever experienced tragedy of loss, prayed to God, yet the situation remains the same. Our loved one dies. Our home is still destroyed by a tornado. We didn’t get that job we wanted so badly. For those who adhere to this understanding of the Bible, it quickly becomes a book of BROKEN promises.
Each of these theories concerning the nature of scripture is flawed and sets the reader up for disappointment. So let us begin the quest to discover what the Bible is. In order to do this, we need to understand the events occurring before and during the time scriptures were written. I have included a couple of handouts we may be referring to throughout this series. The first is a Biblical Timeline, comparing Biblical events and world events side-by-side. The wheel came into wide use around 3000 BC. The Bronze Age replaced the Stone Age around 2600 BC – the Egyptians began building their pyramids around this time. Note that the birth of Jesus was 4 BC. [note BC and AD] We will refer to this timeline throughout this study.
I also gave you a series of map surrounding the region of the Holy Land. Note how small the Holy Land actually is in comparison to the kingdoms and areas around it. We will talk more extensively about this next week. I wanted to point out two areas as we proceed. First, look at the first 2 maps. Do you see the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers? The area between them is known as the Fertile Crescent. Today it is known as Iraq. Now look at the last map and locate the area known as Samaria. The Samaritans and Jews have a long history of hatred and mistrust. Does anyone know what the area of Samaria is known as today? The West Bank – and the people who live there are known as Palestinians. The relationship between the Palestinians and Jews is much the same today.
As we continue to unpack what the Bible is, next week we are focusing on the Old Testament. I encourage you to bring your Bibles and these maps and timelines which should help to bring scriptures to light and life. I hope you are encouraged to dig deeper and find a greater appreciation for the Bible as we continue to wrestle with scriptures together. Amen.