September 13, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BIBLE 101: WHY BOTHER?
The first in a series of six.
I am not a good swimmer. But I can swim. I can jump into the deep end and not fear for my life. The only reason I can say that is my parents insisted that I take swimming lessons.
There were three levels: beginners, advanced beginners, and advanced. I have a very clear memory of my first day. I was maybe six years old and I was in the wrong class. I had to have been in the wrong class because I almost drowned. The teacher told me to jump in water that was over my head and I was used to doing whatever the teacher told me to do. I jumped in and I had to be rescued.
So they put me in the right class and I learned how to put my head under water and blow bubbles. I was a slow learner. I repeated beginners for maybe five summers in a row. I never did get to advanced beginners. But I did get really good at putting my head under water and blowing bubbles.
It’s important to start in the right class. It’s important to begin at the beginning. Which is what we are going to be doing in worship over these next several weeks. This is going to be a basic, beginners’ introduction to the Bible.
Here’s why. For some of you, listening to these sermons is like jumping into the deep end on the first day of swimming lessons. You are in over your head. I am talking about things in the Bible you’ve never heard of. I try to keep it simple, believe me, I do. But I don’t always succeed. In fact, right up front I want to apologize for this. I know better, but still I often assume you know as much about the Bible as I do. Some of you know more. Some of you know a lot more. But I am well aware that most of you get lost listening to these sermons, especially the parts where I am talking about the Bible.
So this is a series that is way overdue. Thanks for waiting. One thing I know for sure. You want to know more about the Bible. You don’t like the feeling that everyone else knows more than you do. Though I will tell you a secret. People probably think you know more than they do. Most everyone feels some insecurity over how little they know. Even the one who is going to be leading you through this series!
Before we start, I want to give you a preview of what is coming. I am planning on six sermons. Today we are asking the question, “Why bother?” In other words, what is the Bible? And why is the Bible important enough that we should take the time and make the effort to study it?
Next week we will be looking at the land of the Bible. The Holy Land. You have to have a basic grasp of biblical geography to begin to understand the events described in the Bible.
Week 3 will be an overview of what is in the Bible. All 66 books. That’s a lot of books to remember, but we will see that it’s much easier once we realize that there are only eight major sections.
Then we will take a quick trip through the Old Testament. The following week, a quick trip through the New Testament. That will be weeks 4 and 5.
We will conclude on October 18, with what I think will be a fun one. We will be looking at some strange and unusual facts about the Bible that you may not know.
There are three ways we can think about the Bible: (1) it’s all human, (2) it’s all divine, or (3) it’s both human and divine. Let’s go through these.
Some would say that the Bible is no different from any other work of great literature. Other than being older. It was written by about 40 authors. It is beautifully written. It is of historical interest. It has a lot of great thoughts about what God is like and what God expects of us. But it’s a purely human creation. God had nothing to do with it. You need to study it for the same reason you need to study Shakespeare. Educated people know about such things. But other than that, you could be excused for asking, “Why bother?”
There are some Christians who hold this point of view, but for most of us, the Bible is a one-of-a-kind book that is definitely not “all human.”
The second view is that the Bible is “all divine.” It was written by human hands, but God basically dictated every word. And since God doesn’t make mistakes, the Bible is literally true. A lot of Christians believe this. I have read many doctrinal statements that go something like this: “We believe the Bible is inerrant in its original writings.” In other words, any human mistakes crept in later and were not present in the earliest, most reliable, most ancient manuscripts.
My guess is that more of you believe this – that the Bible is “all divine” – than believe that it is “all human.” But I also know that many of you have a problem with this. I have a problem with this. I don’t believe the earth is flat or the universe is 6,000 years old, as the Bible seems to suggest. I don’t believe that God told the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child of their enemies. I don’t believe God approves of slavery or polygamy or male superiority. And I do find a fair number of mistakes in the Bible that a good proofreader should have caught. These may have crept in later, after God dictated the original, but I find it more plausible that these were the same kind of human mistakes that you and I make all the time.
I have a lot of friends who disagree with me on this, and probably some of you as well. They had a Wesley Conference on this very subject at NNU a few years ago. It was called “The Bible Tells Me So.” I was sitting at a table next to another pastor. During our discussion time I mentioned the scripture that says the sun stood still in order for Joshua to have a longer day and kill more Amorites before it got too dark to see them (Joshua 10:12-14). I asked if he believed that really happened. He said he did. He said if someone could prove to him that didn’t happen he would have to resign his position as pastor and renounce his faith. And here’s why. He said, “If I can’t believe everything in the Bible, I can’t believe anything in the Bible.”
I respect him for his convictions. But those are not my convictions. I really think a lot of the people who reject the Bible do so because they know enough about the Bible to know they can’t believe everything in it, and they agree with that pastor. They think that means they can’t believe anything in it. And so, when it comes to studying the Bible, they too say, “Why bother?”
But there is one more possibility. The Bible might be “both human and divine.” The Bible was written by ignorant, fallible human beings, yes. But those ignorant, fallible human beings were inspired by an all-knowing, all-loving God. That explains the parts of the Bible that are hateful and contradictory and unscientific. That also explains the many more parts of the Bible that are God speaking directly to us as only God can. Revealing to us truth that we could never have figured out for ourselves.
The more I know about the Bible – the more I read it and think about it and let it become part of me – the more certain I am that this is not just a good book. This is God’s book. So the “why bother?” question goes away. The Bible is no longer something I really should pick up and read. The Bible is something I cannot live without.
Here is how Robert McAfee Brown put it:
The Bible isn’t “just another book” with a lot of interesting information about God. It is a book in which people find God “coming alive,” making his way into their hearts and demanding that they do something about him. He’s not a “safe” or “tame” God, securely lodged behind the bars of a distant heaven; he has the most annoying manner of showing up when we least want him; of confronting us in the strangest ways. And he usually turns out to be very different from the sort of God we would have invented for ourselves. We have to be prepared for surprises and unexpected news (The Bible Speaks to You, page 7).
Our scripture for today was written by someone who was way past the “why bother?” question. “Oh, how I love your law!” (119:97). It says “law,” not Bible, because this is referring to the section of the Bible called “the Law.” It’s the first five books of the Bible, often called “the Torah.” Jews hold these books in special reverence and display them on huge scrolls in their synagogues. And “reverence” really isn’t the right word. The right word is “love.” “Oh, how I love your law!” “Oh, how I love the Bible!”
Can you say that? Is the Bible for you a project you know you need to take on in the future, and some day you will? But not yet. Or have you fallen in love with the Bible? And when you are in love, it doesn’t take an act of will to spend time with the object of your love. My wife is not a project I am going to work on when I get around to it. I don’t have to will myself to spend time with her. Love has a wonderful way of drawing you to the one you love!
There are three ways the Psalmist expresses his love. It says, “I meditate on [the Bible] all day long” (119:97). This is actually an echo of the way the book of Psalms begins:
Blessed are those who walk not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate day and night (1:1-2).
Sometimes people have a problem with that word “meditate.” It sounds Buddhist, not Christian. But it’s a word used all through the Bible. It’s been said that if you can worry, you can meditate. When you worry, the same negative thoughts loop through your brain over and over, and they drag you down. When you meditate, you replace those negative thoughts with God’s thoughts that you have been reading in the Bible. You let God’s thoughts loop through your brain over and over, and they lift you up.
Second, the Psalmist obeys. “I obey your commands” (119:100). There are Ten Commandments in the Torah. There are “Four Greats” taught by Jesus. The Great Commandment, which is really two: love God and love your neighbor. The Great Commission: make disciples. And the Great Invitation: follow me. Meditation leads to obedience. We don’t just think God’s thoughts. We do God’s will. We do what God tells us to do.
Third, understanding. “I gain understanding from your commands” (119:104). Understanding means things start making sense. We no longer have to agonize over every single decision. What is God’s will? What would Jesus do? When you have spent enough time in God’s Word, your human nature recedes. Your spiritual nature grows. That means obeying God is no longer the opposite of what you want to do. Your will and God’s will begin to merge.
There is another meaning of this word “understanding.” And it relates directly to the Bible. We just finished a series on the Love Chapter. Remember that verse near the end? “Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (I Corinthians 13:12). We want to understand the Bible. That’s the reason for this series. It’s a life-long undertaking. No matter how much we know, there is always more. We will always say, “Now I know in part.” But the whole point of the Bible is not to understand it. The whole point of the Bible is to realize that it understands us. “I have been fully understood.”
The Bible knows you. The Bible knows me. The Bible understands you and me, at our worst and at our best. The Bible understands how far from God we can stray. The Bible understands how close to God we can be. The Bible is the book that understands us.
And so our scripture for today ends with these beautiful words: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (119:105). These words inspired Amy Grant to write that song we all love. It’s a pretty good summary verse for what the Bible is all about. It’s the book that understands us and it’s the book that gives us light so we can find our way through the darkness.
There is an old story that comes out of the Jewish tradition. A rabbi again and again would emphasize to his congregation how important it was for them to read the Bible. He told them that the more faithfully they read, the more God would put his words on their hearts. He always phrased it that way. “On their hearts.” One day someone spoke up and asked, “Why do you say ‘on our hearts?’ Why don’t you say ‘in our hearts?’”
The rabbi explained, “Only God can put scripture inside. Reading the sacred text puts it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”
It’s when we walk in darkness that God becomes real. Because that is when God’s light is no longer a convenience. It is a necessity. It’s not just a verse of scripture. It’s a personal experience. “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
We’re just getting started. Next week we will be looking at the land of the Bible. If you have a Bible with maps, have it handy.
And one more thing. Make time this week to read the Bible. I know God will put what you read on your heart.
Thank you God for revealing yourself to us in the words of sacred scripture. And thank you for the wonderful way you did this. The Bible is so simple, a child can understand. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And the Bible is so profound that none of us will ever in a lifetime plumb its depths. Help us in this series to start where we are – beginner, advanced beginner, or advanced – and jump in. Not so we can have more knowledge, but so we can have more faith. And more hope. And more love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.