SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 30:11-14 – Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
Is the Bible Still Relevant?
November 8, 2015
Think of some of the classic books you read in high school and college. Works by Jane Eyre and Ernest Hemingway. “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Tiger Beat magazine and the latest Goosebumps book. Hey, we each define a “classic” in our own way! We probably read works that were centuries old, like “Cantebury Tales” and “Beowulf.” All of them are masterpieces, timeless stories. But do we turn to any them today for how to live our lives? Do we get relationship guidance from “Romeo and Juliet?” Do we learn how to treat others from “The Scarlet Letter?” Sure, those books may have nuggets of wisdom for us to mine, but there’s only one book I know of to which we turn, sometimes on a daily basis, to hear a story that’s as old as the hills yet as relevant as today’s news. How can one of the oldest books we know, written in a much different time and place, be a bestseller every year and still have such a strong influence over us?
Today we continue our sermon series on the Bible, asking hard questions like is the Bible true and what kind of authority should it have for us. Today, we’re going to ask if the Bible is still relevant for us today. And that’s a legitimate question. If we believe that the Bible was divinely inspired but humanly written, then we have to acknowledge that its pages are smudged with the fingerprints of history and its stories are saturated with the culture in which they were written, a culture which blatantly accepted slavery and openly oppressed women, a culture rooted in violent conquest and lacking in scientific or medical knowledge. In other words, a culture about as far removed from ours as the moon. At yet, we still read the Bible today to hear this story and learn how to live our lives. Why? Wouldn’t we be better served reading something more modern, like “Chicken Soup for the 21st Century Soul?” C’mon, even Tiger Beat magazine had helpful relationship quizzes! Why the Bible?
I’ve told you all before about my first experience crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I assumed a bridge was a bridge; I’d crossed back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana hundreds of time. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is 4.3 miles long, and climbs to a height of 186 feet above the water. When I looked down, I saw right through the grated floor to the water 186 feet below. When I looked up, I saw how much the bridge was swaying in the wind. Before our trip, I thought it was laughable when I heard they offer a service where you can pay someone to drive your car across the bridge for you while you lay down on the back seat. But at that moment, I would have paid one million dollars for that service so that I could crawl in the trunk until we were off that Satan-designed instrument of torture.
Keeping the Bible relevant is like trying to cross a very long, treacherous bridge. On one side you have our modern world and culture; on the other side you have the Bible’s very different world and culture. And in between us is this huge swaying bridge, spanning 20 centuries, across which must travel all our interpretations and understandings. Too often what we do is try to drag the Bible’s words across the bridge into our world and apply them literally without doing any of the interpretive work. “If the Bible says it, then it must be right.” Unfortunately, those words don’t always travel well, and much of the meaning can get lost along the way. Instead, we have to be willing to do the hard work of traveling across the bridge to learn about that world in order to bring back our understanding and application, with the understanding that the meaning may change as we travel back to our side.
I know a lot of people who believe we shouldn’t mess with the words of the Bible. It sounds sacrilege to some to even think about taking the words of the Bible in any way other than face value. But thankfully, we have a pretty powerful example of someone who said, “I know the Bible tells you this, but I think it actually means something different today.” Sounds a bit scandalous, doesn’t it? Who is this vagabond who dares to tamper with the Holy word of God? Who is this rogue theologian who shows no regard for the Good Book? He was a woodworker named Yeshua from a small town in the Middle East, but you may know him by his alias: Jesus Christ.
In the gospel of Matthew, during his Sermon on the Mount, five different times Jesus takes a piece of scripture and reinterprets it for his modern context. For example, in the book of Exodus, the law states, “ But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” That’s nothing less than God’s law, handed down to Charleton Heston himself! If anything in the Bible is timeless and unchanging, it should be that.
In Matthew, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Right there, Jesus sets the precedent for reinterpreting scripture for a current context. The rule of an eye for an eye was no longer applicable in Jesus’ society, but rather than throw out the Bible as an antiquated rulebook that no longer applied, Jesus imaginatively reinterpreted God’s law so that it spoke a fresh word to his hearers. He does this dozens of times in the gospels. Because of that, the Bible remained a living document for his hearers.
This precedent has been followed down through history. Theologians and biblical scholars have worked hard to figure out what word the Bible had to speak into their current context. There was never any belief that the Bible was meant to be this static document to be read literally for all eternity. It wasn’t written that way and was never meant to be used that way. But in the last hundred years, a system of belief has developed that is built upon the Bible being a rulebook with no errors or inconsistencies, rather than it being a love story about God and God’s people. And I would argue that the more we try to make the Bible speak to us today without bringing it across that interpretive bridge, the more irrelevant it becomes. The more we try to make the Bible fit our worldview, instead of letting it shape our worldview, the more we are creating God in our image, not the other way around.
We need to find a way for the Bible to speak to the challenges of secularism and religious pluralism without minimizing or disrespecting them. In other words, we can’t say, “Our truth is right and yours is wrong.” We can’t say, “What the Bible says is more important than your experience.” We can’t say, “God tells us that some people matter and others don’t based on who they are or how they look or who they love.” As soon as we try to thump the Bible as a black-and-white answer book to all this world’s complex dilemmas, we lose all those people who live the in the gray every day, the shaded nuances that call for a fresh interpretation that takes into consideration their real-world issues and the doubts they have about the Bible.
We have a neighbor who is a great example of the challenge of keeping the Bible relevant. He’s an evolutionary biologist. I enjoy talking with him about his work, and he’s tolerant in listening about mine. He’s not a believer, and I would have to guess part of the reason is because what he studies in his work and what the Bible says don’t match up for him. I’ve told him that we Christians believe God speaks to us through the Bible, but also through nature, through science, through our experiences. But still, to him, the Bible is completely irrelevant. So how would you help someone like him see the Bible differently? It’s not by asserting we’re right and he’s wrong, but so often, that’s the stance the church takes. If we just shout loudly enough, people will realize we’ve got the answers. There are so many people like him, people who have been told the Bible says one thing (probably by someone who doesn’t really know what the Bible says) but who experience something completely different. “Because the Bible says so” is no longer a valid answer when what the Bible says is used to promote hate or exclusion or an elitist attitude. Just because the Bible says it doesn’t automatically make it a relevant word for today.
I’m in a conversation right now with someone struggling to understand how God could love him, because all he’s been taught growing up is that God condemns people who are like him. I’m trying to help him see that that story he’s been told isn’t the only version. There’s another story we can tell, a story of love and hope and acceptance. He’s been told that his actions violate the capital-T truth of the Bible. But there’s another truth we can offer, the truth of God’s grace and God’s image in each of us. It’s been pounded into him that his identity is one of a sinner. There’s another identity we can help shape, the identity of God’s beloved child. The Bible is relevant in that it helps us find our story in the bigger picture of God’s story, and it speaks a word of hope to us.
In this age of consumerism, we have a story to tell about who we are, not what we have. In this era of racism and sexism and homophobia, we have a story to tell about how God created us all and all lives matter. In this time of violence and despair, we have a story to tell about a hope that is so incredible, so out of this world, that it just might be true.
We can’t tell that story if we insist that the Bible fits within certain parameters. We have to be willing to let scripture speak a new word to us in our world today, one that may challenge our previous assumptions. We have to be willing to disagree with parts of the Bible that contradict our understanding of God. And we have to be willing to let go of parts of the Bible which no longer have a relevant word to speak. Are we willing to admit that some of the passages in the Bible are no longer relevant for us, and actually may be doing more harm than good in our world today? When the Bible was written, God let God’s children tell God’s story in their language and culture. And now God wants God’s children of today to tell the story in our language, in a way that speaks a word of hope and comfort and welcome into our world. We are called to continue the conversation that scripture started using our tradition and reason and experience to inform that conversation.
It probably seems absurd to an outsider, how much time and attention we give to this ancient document. But what we know, and what we are compelled to share, is that this book contains truth and hope and power that goes beyond anything our world has to offer, that it tells the story that makes sense of all the other stories in our lives. Our challenge is to speak it and live it in a way that balances the timeless nature of God’s word with the urgency to hear a relevant word for this moment today. That word is there, if we have ears to hear it, a mind to be open to it, and the courage to live it.