3-4-18 “Finding a Word: Listening to the Texts”
Ten years ago, after I returned from my first trip to
El Salvador in 2008, I bought the Rosetta Stone language learning program in order to learn to speak Spanish. I knew I would likely return to El Salvador and I was also involved in Hispanic ministry through the church I served on the east side, so I thought it would be helpful to learn the language. And for a while I made progress. I learned some basic phrases, and even with a wobbly foundation in the language I was able to figure out the meanings of other words and build simple sentences. But at some point, I quit working on it. I don’t know why, I just got busy with other things and stopped using the program. And of course, without the practice, that new learning faded away. So to this day, I cannot speak Spanish. Since that time, new language learning programs have come out, and with the advent of smart phones there are now language learning apps that weren’t available ten years ago. And that’s all well and good, but I suspect that any app I tried would meet the same fate as those now dusty Rosetta Stone CDs in my desk at home.
This past week, though, I saw an ad on Facebook for a device called a Pilot Translator. And the Pilot is a small device, about the same size as one of the ear buds that comes with smart phones, that fits in your ear and instantaneously translates any language you hear into the language that you speak - right into your ear.
Now, if you’re a Star Trek geek like I am, then you recognize this as being the same concept as the Universal Translator technology used in all iterations of Star Trek over the years that allowed humans to communicate with untold numbers of intergalactic aliens. But Trekkie or not, I think we can all recognize the value of a device like this that would enable communication between two people who don’t speak the same language. If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a person who speaks a different language than you, then you know how difficult, confusing, and even frustrating it can be. We often resort to the use of hand signals or some kind of pseudo sign language, maybe grunting or pantomiming, and perhaps even drawing pictures in order to get our message across. Finding a communications bridge is vital; without being able to communicate it’s really impossible to get to know someone.
I mean think about it. When we go to a dinner or a party or some such event where there are people present we don’t know or haven’t met before, we have to engage in some degree of small talk in order to navigate that situation. And as an introvert, let me tell you, having to make small talk is introvert HELL!
Most introverts would rather have dental work done! But in order to get to know someone, or to be known by someone, we have to be able to communicate. When we’re honest in our speech we reveal something about who we are.
We can’t know or get to know someone who won’t speak to us, and we can’t be known by a person we won’t speak to.
As part of premarital counseling I’m doing for two couples whose weddings I’ll be performing in May we’re all reading the book, The Five Love Languages.
The premise of this book is that we all speak one of five specific love languages, and that like any verbal language, if we don’t speak the love language of our partner, then we can’t communicate our love for the other in a way that they will understand. And I think we all understand how important communication is in any relationship we’re part of, but especially in committed, long-term relationships like a marriage.
Similarly, we have faith languages that we use as well. And I think some of the same principles apply to how we talk about faith - if we aren’t speaking in the same faith language as another person then we might not be communicating our understanding of faith in a way that they can understand.
In fact, the late theologian Marcus Borg, in his book Speaking Christian, says that “for many, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. Even for those who think they speak “Christian” fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted. They think they are speaking the language like it has always been understood, but what they mean by the words and concepts is very different from what these things meant originally.” And he goes on to suggest that, “Modern Christians are steeped in a language so distorted that it has become a stumbling block to the religion.”
So how are we to “listen to the texts,” as our title suggests, if we don’t know the difference between what these words mean now and what they meant when they were written? How do we communicate with one another, how are we to commune with God through scripture, if we’re not speaking the same language?
Well, biblical scholars and theologians like Borg and many others across the theological spectrum of mainline Christianity would offer many ideas about how to do that, but one that would be consistent among most of them is the idea of how we view Scripture, how we read Scripture.
For example, John’s gospel begins with that beautiful prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and so on. And as we’ve discussed both here and in our two bible studies on John, the word translated as Word - capital W - is logos - a Greek word meaning logic, reason, wisdom, revelation, or even plan of God. And we don’t understand Word with a capital W to mean the same as words with a lowercase w, as in the letters on a page that make up the words that we read or speak. There is a metaphorical meaning attached to capital W Word. And we know this because the passage goes on to say that the Word, capital W, became flesh and we know that refers to Jesus as God’s plan incarnate, not to words from a book.
So, when we think of Scripture as the Word of God, capital W, we also understand that in the same metaphorical way that we understand Jesus as Word - that is as logos, as the reason, wisdom, logic, the plan of God. We say Word of God, not words of God, because we know that Scripture, while inspired by God was written by humans, within a specific time and place, within certain contexts - both historical and cultural. And we recognize that those writers brought their own cultural, and often patriarchal, influences into their writing.
So, what do we mean by Word of God? Well, Word as a metaphor - we know Jesus is not literally a collection of letters of the alphabet - is a means of communicating an idea about God, or of communing with God.
Scripture reveals the nature of God to us as that nature has been understood over the centuries by the human beings who wrote the books that make up the Bible. Jesus, however, the Word in flesh, is the ultimate revelation, the last word, if you will, about who and how God is. When there is conflict between the nature of God as described in a biblical text and how the nature of God is described by or modeled by Jesus, Jesus wins. To echo language from the Reformer Martin Luther, the Bible is the manger in which we find Christ. But we don’t follow the manger, we follow Christ.
So when John speaks of the Word being with God and in fact being God, he’s saying that God is speaking to us - God is revealing God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. What God has always been is now being offered to us so that we can know who God is and how God relates to us. Jesus’ words and actions reveal God’s nature, just as our speech and actions reveals our nature.
God does not use the kind of speech we think of when we think of one human talking with another. God’s Word, God’s reason or logic, in order to be understood by us mortals, becomes human: a form we can understand, a form with which we can interact.
John writes, “The Word [that is, the self-expression, the self-revelation of God] became flesh and made his home among us.”
Many Christians, though, get hung up on the words, on the words in the Bible as the revelation of God and forget that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s Word, God’s plan, God’s desire. For example, did you see the new comedy on CBS that debuted this past week, Living Biblically? It’s based loosely on a book that I have referenced to you before, The Year of Living Biblically by author A.J. Jacobs, and its premise is that a man who had been agnostic at best, after the death of an old friend and then hearing the news that his wife was pregnant, decides that he needs to do something to be better person. He decides he wants to try to live strictly and completely according to the Bible, attempting to follow every rule, every law in the Bible literally. He consults both a priest and a rabbi, who tell him - as I have suggested to you before - his task is impossible because adhering to some laws causes you to be in violation of others. Nevertheless, he persists in his quest to make himself a better person in this way. Having read the book, and having seen the opening episode of the show, I look forward to seeing how all of this is portrayed.
But it points to a bigger issue. Trying to read and understand the scripture in order to deepen your own journey with Christ is a wonderful thing to do - we offer Bible studies on a regular basis in order to help people do that very thing. The bible requires some study, it requires some interpretation, in order to truly hear what it has to say for us. But many Christians don’t try to listen to what the text is saying to them, saying to us. Rather, some will pick a particular passage that, taken out of context, seems to support some religious or political agenda they have, and rather than trying to improve themselves, use that passage as a weapon to browbeat (or worse) those who don’t have that same religious or political point of view. So, rather than listening to what Scripture is saying to us - what in theological talk we call exegesis - they read into Scripture what they want to hear it say - what is called eisegesis.
That is, in part, what Jesus accuses the Pharisees of doing in how they interpret the laws in Scripture. Earlier in the book, in chapter 8, Jesus tells the Pharisees that there is no room in them for Jesus’ word. Why? He suggests that they have become enslaved to a very literal way of interpreting scripture. Rather than reading it in such a way as to bring life to the people, they’ve turned it into a tool for enslaving them. Their strict adherence to trying to live out every detail of the law, and insisting that everyone else do the same, thinking that that was the only way to be saved, had actually enslaved them, had hardened their hearts toward the very people and the very God that they claimed to serve.
Carol Miller, the author of our Wednesday morning Bible study guide on John’s gospel, pursues this line in our study, asking,
“What are the things that truly enslave you, things from which you need to be set free? It could be some addiction or compulsion. It could be a dark sense of guilt or unworthiness. It might be a desire for acceptance from someone who cannot give it. It might be enslavement to money and possessions - things people sometimes use to convince themselves that they deserve a place on the planet. It could be control over others or power to get your way.” She asks good questions of us.
The Pharisees were so convinced that the only way to free Israel from the oppressive thumb of the Romans, the only way that a Messiah would rise up to save them, was if Israel was righteous in the eyes of God.
And the only way they understood that could happen was if every person in the nation of Israel, followed every dot and tittle of the law as interpreted and reinterpreted by religious leaders like them over the centuries.
This understanding, this zealously literal interpretation had enslaved them in such a way that they failed to recognize the long-awaited Messiah when he stood before them. The words had become their master, rather than the living Word of God.
We shouldn’t be too quick to condemn the Pharisees though. As Miller suggests, “Everyone serves a master. It may be that your master is acceptance or control or any of a thousand things. All false masters are cruel masters. You can never be free; you can never do enough - unless you serve the one master who is able to make you whole…”
So why did Jesus say back in chapter 8 that there was no room for his word in the hearts of the Pharisees and religious leaders? What is taking up the space?
For them, it may have been pride and judgmentalism and all those rules and laws they had memorized. For us, it may be a preoccupation with work, an overly busy life that measures importance by how desperately it’s over-scheduled. Perhaps it’s an obsession with striving to be good enough to win God’s favor or a burden of guilt over past failures. As Miller suggests, “when there is no place for Jesus’ word, there is a desire to be done with him: ‘You look for an opportunity to kill me,’ Jesus told them, ‘because there is no place in you for my word’ (John 8:37, NRSV).” Jesus was bringing them what he had seen ‘in God’s presence,’ what he had heard from God. What more could we possibly need? And still Jesus instructed his opponents, still holding open to them the freedom of life lived in God: ‘As for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father’ (John 8:38, NRSV). There was still time for them, he offered; they only needed to listen to God, to hear God’s message, [God’s Word] that is Jesus. It is possible to be free from every cruel, misery-making master and to serve God. One only has to hear Christ’s invitation. Keeping every letter of the law cannot save us because ‘being saved’ has to do with a living relationship, not with performing certain works in certain ways. It has to do with embodying the love of God in your life, not keeping score of how many laws you [or anyone else] keeps [or breaks].’ And Miller suggests, “Keeping the law without God’s love and compassion is worthless.
It means exactly nothing.”
In our passage today, what Jesus had said of his opponents, that the lack of room for him in their hearts had led them to seek ways to kill him, was coming to fruition. Charged with blasphemy, he would be tried for violating the very laws that they worshiped as their master and that Jesus had come to fulfill, to conclude, to replace with what he called the Greatest Commandment, to love God and to love neighbor. That was how Jesus said we should live our lives. That, he said, was the nature of God.
Miller invites us to “Look seriously at the way [we] are living [our lives.] What is its driving force? Why do you get up in the morning? When all is said and done, who is your master? Many ‘church people’ are rule-keepers,” she observes. “They see keeping rules and laws as a way of knowing whether they are following God or not.
That presents a huge danger. We have seen that the Pharisees and scribes were great rule-keepers, but that didn’t necessarily make them close to God.
Life with God is not about keeping laws. Life with God, now and in the life to come, is a matter of embracing who God is, celebrating God’s nature revealed to us in Jesus, becoming more and more like him as we live joined to him - branches on a vine, vessels for living water. It’s not in the rote keeping of laws that life is found; it’s in knowing God, the God we see [ultimately and most fully revealed] in Jesus.
Are you trying to be ‘good enough’ for God to love you? Are you trying to keep as many laws as you can so that you will know you are following God? Do you pride yourself on being just a bit better than some others you could name, [thinking, ‘Well, at least I’ve never done THAT!’]? How well are you listening to Jesus’ description of God? Jesus had a warning: Your law-keeping won’t work. And he has an invitation: ‘All who are thirsty should come to me.’ - (Carol Miller, Immersion Bible Study: John, pg 40)
That’s why Bible Study, and Lectio Divina, and Bible meditation, and a good study bible, are all important ways of listening to the text - no one way will help us understand what it is God is trying to say to us. If we only bring one tool to the task, it’s like trying to drain the ocean one teaspoonful at a time. You might eventually get the job done, but it’s highly unlikely.
Sometimes, I could use one of those in-ear translators in order to decipher what our 3 year old grandson is saying. If you ask him his name, which is William, he’ll tell you “Bil bum.” That’s what he hears and how he can say what he hears at this age when you call him by name. When he tries to ask you or tell you something, you have to listen not just to the words he says, but you also have to place them in context. What was he just doing before he said that? Who was he with? What is he reaching for? Context is important when he’s telling you what was just on the TV in the other room, what he had for lunch that day, or when he’s asking if you have any more blue suckers. He’s very confident in what he’s saying, whether we can understand him or not, so without listening for context, we might as well be a translator-less Captain Kirk trying to speak to a Klingon.
We don’t have to wonder or worry about the nature of God. Jesus reveals God’s nature to us. Despite those places in the Old Testament that portray God has as angry, judgmental, and even vengeful, Jesus Christ, the Word of God reveals to us what is the true nature of God: God is love. That is the overarching message in Scripture of who God is, from beginning to end, and that’s the word Jesus wants us to hear, the God he wants us to know through him. That is the lesson he wants us to listen for in Scripture. And then he wants to know from us, do we have room in our hearts for his word?
In the silence, Christ listens for our response. Amen.