Sunday, October 24, 2010

Useful Word

Psalm 119:97-105
2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5

The teacher didn’t know how much time he had left. He remembered how zealous he was at trying to stop the spread of the Christian message, so he had no idea how long he would have now that he was spreading that same message himself. At least he was no longer working among the Gentiles on his own. Men that he had trained, men that had been taught at his very side were THANKFULLY out pounding the pavement, taking the gospel into new places without his physical companionship. They were capable, he was certain, most of the time. He couldn’t be with his prize pupil all the time, so he was sure to send him a letter of encouragement.

One letter can go a long way, can’t it? What was the most important letter you ever received? Or on the other hand, the more important letter that you sent?
Was it a college acceptance letter? A love letter? A break-up letter? Notification of debt finally repaid?

What was it like when you opened that letter? Did you know immediately of its news? Had you already figured it out? Were you anticipating what you read before you even went to the mailbox?

How about a letter like this one? Have you ever received a letter from a beloved teacher or mentor? Did you keep it? Do you maybe still have it? I received a letter of sorts from my 3rd grade teacher, but when I was in the 6th grade. I had been helping in Mrs. Strong’s class that year whenever I had finished up my own work in my classes. Mrs. Strong had been a favorite teacher when I was in her room, so when she tapped me to help out with her students, when she called on me to tutor , I jumped in without questioning and loved every minute of it.

When the year was over and it was time for me to move on to junior high, out of the elementary school I had known for the last 5 years, I was elated to receive from Mrs. Strong a book. I still have that book; it is in our kids’ bookshelves, inscribed with an important note from my important teacher. It was the last chance she figured she had to impart wisdom, share her experience, and send me off with words to live by in the next stage of my life and calling. I think Timothy’s teacher did the exact same thing.

In his letter Timothy is reminded of the one thing that helps him know the most important truth, the one thing that carries the most important message for his life and for others, the one thing that promises him that in Christ and through Christ is hope, and forgiveness, and new life. In his letter Timothy is reminded of the scriptures he has known since childhood, the scriptures he heard spoken before he could read them himself. The scriptures he saw preciously rolled and unrolled on scrolls in the synagogue. His attention is drawn to the scriptures he studied as he grew in age and wisdom, hearing in them the stories of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and promise for redemption.

Of course the scriptures Timothy studied were not exactly the same as the scriptures we study today. They did yet contain the gospels about Jesus or letters to and from people following the way of Christ. In fact, the letter Timothy received would someday end up in our Christian collection of scriptures. But scriptures he had spoke just as importantly to the faith of Jesus and God’s works of salvation across time.

They contained the witness of stories told around campfires and homefires throughout the generations, scrolls read and heard in the temple and later the synagogues. Timothy’s scriptures were full of the Psalmists songs – sung both in greatest joy and praise and also in deepest pain and questions. They held the wisdom of proverbs, the sharp critique of prophets, the beauty of poetry and speaks to the heart what the mind can’t understand. In a variety of ways, with a diversity of approaches the scriptures Timothy knew and were commended to him all pointed to the faithfulness of God to God’s struggling people. They are a family album of experiences and stories of the ancestors in faith that witness and testify to the loving God.

It’s a unique book for a people of faith, really, if you think about it. We don’t claim that our collection of writings comes from a single person or a single revelation. We don’t claim that it was dictated to one man by the voice of God or recited by another and copied down word for word. We live with and wrestle with the reality that our scriptures are a collection of distinct books and poems and prophecies, written across a wide span of time, by a diversity of authors, for countless contexts and situations.

We accept that the words we lift up as holy and set apart for a particular purpose, the purpose of guiding and comforting, informing and transforming the lives of the faithful, are at sometimes clear and other times confusing, sometimes united in their message and other times seemingly contradictory, sometimes detailed and maybe even a little boring and other times dramatic, humorous, or heartbreaking. These scriptures are unique for a people of faith, but ultimately they are our scriptures, the place where God reveals to us in no clearer words, God’s love for creation and redemption for it in Jesus the Christ. They are the single greatest testimony to God’s desire to work with us, not against us, to remain engaged in relationship, not give up on us, to pull us out of the pits we dig for ourselves, not leave us helpless in them, and nowhere is this more clear in the person and work of Jesus our Christ, the Word of God.

The Bible stands in a pretty important place in our Protestant and Reformed branches of faith. The Bible, not the authority of the church or our individual experience, is our authority on Christ’s call. The Bible is the place to which we turn to help us discern God’s will and our next faithful steps. As we discussed in Adult Education a few weeks ago, we don’t believe IN the Bible; we believe in God which the words of the Bible reveal to us. The Bible alone is a collection of words on a page. It is stories and poems all collected and bound together in one volume. However, we trust that God has breathed the Spirit of Life all over these pages, and when we invite that Spirit to inspire our reading we can, through these words hear the Word of God.

And what can happen when we hear that Word? What happens to you when you read Scripture and are touched by it? What effect does it have in your life? This one’s not rhetorical; I’m looking for real answers. What do you look for when you decide to read Scripture?

We may be comforted or challenged, inspired or reassured, guided or slowed down, but SOMETHING should always happen when we read Scripture with the Spirit. SOMETHING. These words that have been passed to us lovingly from one generation to the next, these words that have been carefully protected and cherished, these words over which unfortunately much blood has been shed, should do SOMETHING to us when we engage them together or alone.

In Presbyterian circles we love to quote a little Latin to ourselves, the source of which is a little murky, but the sentiment of which is important for our understanding of how God works with the Church. We’re sort of arrogant that way, quoting Latin to each other, but here it is anyway: Reformata semper reformanda. That part alone is often translated “Reformed and always reforming.” It is supposed to point to our faithfulness to continually seek the best way forward as a church, not holding on to the past just because it’s the past.

However, the common translation not only shortens the full sentiment, it offers what seems to be just a minor translation error, but is really quite crucial to our understanding. In full, the English translation of this anonymous point of our Reformed understanding is more correctly, “The Church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” It’s more than just a longer statement; it’s a more complete understanding of the nature of the church and the purpose and usefulness of Scripture.

First and foremost, it is not the church that changes itself. It is God that reforms the church. The church is not continually “reforming”; the church is “being reformed.” It’s subtle, but it is so VERY important. We are faithful not when we try this or that or any little thing in an attempt to follow God in the world. We are faithful not when we change just for the sake of changing or to follow the winds of the culture with no attention to God’s Spirit.

We are faithful when our changes are led by God. We are faithful when we discern together where God is taking us in the future, how God is calling us to change, when God is calling us to act on our inspiration. Being faithful to God means certain change in our life, our life together as a denomination and as a congregation, but also as disciples of Jesus. God is always calling and molding and pruning and perfecting us, so that we will grow in faith and be equipped for every good work. God has formed us and is reforming us for God’s work in the world.

Secondly, we are not without a guide or wisdom as we move forward reformed and always being reformed. We are not left to our own devices to determine whether the voice we hear calling to us is that of God in heaven or that of a deceiver in the world. The way in which God will lead us will always be in accordance with the Word of God – the little “w” words on the page in Scripture and the big “W” Word in Jesus Christ, to whom those Scriptures witness. The words of Scripture tell us how God operates – out of love and mercy and grace for the redemption of all of creation. The Word of God in Christ shows us what that looks like in human living.
Together the words on the page and the living Word exist not to be etched in stone as a beautiful memorial, not to be shouted back and forth in endless, hurtful arguments, not to be quoted out of context to try to prove one another wrong.

Together the words on the page and the living Word of God exist to transform our lives. They are useful words. They have purpose and action. They call forth change and obedience. They transform our lives and our life together.

They are words of conviction and confession - - “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” They are words of forgiveness and promise - - “For God so loved the world.” They are words of protection and provision - - “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” They are words of comfort and presence - -“I will be with you always even to the end of the age. They are words of commission and sending -- “God therefore and make disciples.”

They are words that call forth change in our lives, change in the way we interact with God, change in the way to see ourselves, change in the way we act as the Body of Christ in the world. It is no accident that in our Christian Education ministry we have decided to make this a Year with the Bible. More often than not our children’s and adult education opportunities will be focused on learning about Scripture. Our congregation has been and continues to be seeking the will of God for our future. We are looking for God’s next reforming call together. We are, like Timothy, making our way as disciples, trying to bring good news to the world in which we live.

It is Scripture that will both ground us and send us. It is Scripture that will tell us of God’s faithfulness in the past, God’s mission in the present, and God’s leading in the future. It is Scripture that will instruct us and prepare us, comfort us and guide us, correct us and refine us, lead us and transform us as we strive to be a part of God’s activity in the world.

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