I am frequently asked -- by both adults and youth -- where to find the marriage service in the Bible. So, today we’re going to have a little pop quiz. Multiple choice: in which book of the Bible would you find the marriage service?
A) The Book of HezekiahThose of you who are not voting may just be afraid to express an opinion -- or you may realize that I’ve just given you a trick question. For of course, the marriage service isn’t in the Bible at all; and furthermore, the only one of those books I just mentioned which is real is the Book of Enoch, and it isn’t even in the Bible, though it is quoted in the New Testament.
B) Second Opinions
C) The Letter to the Cappadocians
D) The Book of Enoch
I don’t ask such a question in order to embarrass anybody, or to trifle away our time together, but to point out that the Bible is often misunderstood or neglected, even by those who claim to be attentive followers of the Scriptures. And so I’d like to say a few words today about this book -- this special book -- that we call the Bible.
So what is this book we call the Bible, and why is it so special -- and to begin with, how shall we approach it?
Christians have always had very strong views about the Bible. During the age of the great persecutions, when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp out Christianity, to possess this book (or any portions of it) was a death sentence, and yet people continued to possess it, and read it, and treasure it. During the Reformation, when Charles V of Germany was trying to stamp out the work of Martin Luther, who had dared to issue a translation of the Bible into ordinary German, men like the Elector George of Saxony said, “Before I let someone take from me the Word of God, I will kneel and let him strike off my head” -- and it was Charles who backed down. In our own country, the first funding for public education was passed in the colony of Massachusetts. It is known to us today as the Old Satan Deluder Act, for the colonists thought that the only cure for the delusions of the Father of Lies was to spread literacy so that people could read the Bible for themselves -- and that was worth the investment of public money. (My, my how far we have come.)
To be brief about it, there are two major approaches to the Bible, and both of them (I think) are wrong. The liberal view is that this is a book of myths, second-hand tales and culturally-conditioned rules -- a beautiful book, but one from which we may pick and choose when we look to what it teaches us about God. The conservative view is usually that this is an infallible book, an inerrant book, a book beyond criticism. Both viewpoints always wind up assuming the point they have set out to prove, so you gotta be careful.
The liberal view I find is full of wishful thinking. Liberal critics are always violating the methodology of literary criticism in order to make sure the Bible fails whatever test might establish its authority. And I don’t want to bore you with a lot of details, but suffice it to say, that whenever the liberal Bible scholars set out to talk about the Bible, I hear the sound of grinding axes. But the conservative view is equally full of wishful thinking. The conservative critics also violate the methodology of literary criticism in order to prevent the Bible from actually being put to any test that it might -- even in theory -- fail.
But I say, the Bible is first and foremost an old book and has to be treated as any other old book preserved from Antiquity. The methods used to study Beowulf, or the Odyssey, or Caesar’s Gallic War, or the Bhagavad-Gita will do nicely. It takes no special tools to study this book. And it is when we read the Bible as we read any other old book -- just to see what’s in it -- that the specialness of the Bible jumps out at us.
For no other book is like the Bible: written by many different hands over nearly two thousand years, it nevertheless hangs together as a unity; and its text is the best attested book of antiquity. You may object to what it says, but that it is unclear about what it says is absurd: it is all too clear, and all-too-well-preserved. But you have to read it to find that out. One of the great sorrows of the Church in our time is that everybody wants to argue about this book, which few have read. And there is another sorrow like it: that there are many who would like to read it, but like Phillip’s Ethiopian friend in the Book of Acts, have no one to help them understand it.
So, what is this book about? Well, to capsulize it, it is about a man -- a man who was the friend of God. And this man left his home because God told him to, trusting that God would make everything turn out OK. He lived his whole life that way -- by faith.
The man’s family was adopted by God as of special interest, and that family grew into a tribe, and that tribe became a whole confederacy of tribes. That confederacy of separate tribes escaped captivity in a foreign land and was forged into a single nation whose God was the LORD, the God of the Bible. That nation eventually became a kingdom, which lasted for a while, as kingdoms do, and then collapsed. But even after the conquest of the kingdom, those who had been part of it remained a distinct People, wherever they went, and they developed a special religion, different from all the other religions of the earth. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole story of what we call the Old Testament.
All of this led up to the coming of another special man, a man who was born into that first man’s family, of his tribe, out of that confederacy, a citizen of that nation, an heir to that kingdom, a part of that People, a practicing member of that religion. Just another man, like any other -- but unlike any other who has ever lived. For this man said that before that first man, Abraham, the Friend of God, had ever lived, I AM.
His name was Jesus. He said he came straight from God, and came to straighten out the tangled relationship between God and humanity. He said that he would allow himself to be captured and put to death to take away the sins of the whole world, and that he would prove that his death had done just that by rising from the dead three days later.
And then he did it. As we used to say back in Junior High, "it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it" -- but the implications of his resurrection were staggering. It caught everybody off guard. But before he returned whence he came, he gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to his friends, to have his guidance within them. And those friends became the nucleus of a new family, a new tribe, a new confederacy, a new nation, a new kingdom, a new people, a new religion: what we call the Church.
And so, that ridiculously outnumbered bunch of Galilean bumpkins set out -- to their astonishment as well as everyone else’s -- to regenerate mankind anew. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it,
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. he reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.This is the central theme of the Bible. It’s what all the shouting is about. The sixty-six different books of the bible -- written at different times, under different circumstances, by different authors addressing different readers -- all, in the end, are either anticipating the coming of this man, Jesus the Christ, or explaining what has been made different by his coming.
And a funny thing happens to us when we read this story -- not to prove this, or argue that, but just as a story -- just to see how it comes out. Like all good stories, we come to identify with the characters (and boy, does this book have some characters in it). But we read about their hopes and their tragedies, their sins and their broken relationships, their attempts to do what God wants and their desire to have their own way. And as we read, while we read, we find ourselves engaged in their lives -- and our own hopes, our own tragedies, our own sins and broken relationships, our own attempts to do what God wants and our own desire to have our way -- color our reading of their story.
And then, something very special happens: their story suddenly offers to become our story. For as Christ applies his Spirit to the hopes and dreams and sins and longings and so on of the people whose story we are reading, we become aware that someone or something is suggesting that life might be different if he applied his spirit to our lives. And we look up from our reading, or the discussion in our study group, or the sermon we are listening to, and all those other things fall away.
God offers us his love, the life of Christ within us, the consolations of his Holy Spirit -- a chance to do it over and get it right this time -- and we have to choose: Will this be only somebody else’s story to me; or do I dare appeal directly to Christ to let it be my story, too? Behind the words of this greatest of stories is the one we call The Word of God, who can take your story and make it part of his own. If you let him do that, then your story will never end, for his will never end, and it will go on to the ultimate in happy endings.
But if you say, Naaah, that couldn’t be, and let that odd feeling pass -- if you let this story just be someone else’s story -- then you will be left on your own, to make something of your hopes and fears and sins and talents. All on your own. And all the arguments about what this book is, and where it comes from, will be meaningless to you: one more dryasdust quibble in a world where everything ultimately proves less than advertised.
But as for it being a fairy-story, well, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it at the conclusion of his great lecture, "On Fairy-Stories,"
There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.There was a man once whose mother was a Christian, but he didn’t want to be one. He ran from it. He feared what he would have to give up if he become one. And he was utterly miserable. Then one day, he was resting in a garden, and on the other side of the wall, some children were playing a game. He never knew what game it was, but there was a chant that went with their competition. Tolle lege, tolle lege, they said, sing-song fashion, “take up and read, take up and read.”
He was startled, for he had been resisting reading the Bible. But this chant interrupting his nap made him resolve to read for himself, and there he encountered, not an argument -- but the Christ whose story this book is. From that day on, we know him as St. Augustine, one of the great theologians of the Christian Church. His story is typical, for when you hear or read this story, Christ offers to make it your story, and to change the outcome so that your story is like his: filled with the power and joy of God, secure in his love, able to triumph through suffering instead of merely enduring it. When God’s story becomes your own, all things become possible.
And what will you decide, in that moment when the offer of God’s grace becomes real to you? The angels in heaven themselves are hushed and still, waiting to hear your decision.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.