The Voice Outside Ourselves
Scriptures: II Timothy 3:13-17; Deuteronomy 6:4-9
In 1932 a group of German Christians got together to form a new church supporting Adolf Hitler. As part of their guiding principles, the new church adopted the following statement: “We see in race, folk, and nation, orders of existence granted and entrusted to us by God. … Consequently (any mixing of races) is to be opposed. … The nation must be protected against the unfit and inferior” (Quoted by Edward A. Dowey, Jr. in A Commentary on the Confession of 1967, p. 256).
Two things stood out to me about this statement. First is the way this group assumed that their particular view of race was natural—that their sense of racial superiority was the way God created it to be. Second is the way this group, which claimed to be Christians, created a church of like-minded people who agreed with them. No one came to that gathering expecting God to challenge them or call them to repentance. None of them came praying that God would open their eyes and change their hearts to be more like Jesus. They came looking for confirmation of what they already believed.
That’s why I have devoted my life trying to understand and teach the Bible. Because the Bible, when read with an open heart and attention to the whole story, the whole context—when the Bible is read in that way, it becomes a voice challenging our view of God and nature, especially when those views are distorted by own prejudice and self-centeredness. When voices in our culture say, “It’s natural to look down on people of other races or different cultural backgrounds; God made us superior to them.” When we hear voices saying that or implying that, then the Bible calls us to repentance. It says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And when voices in our culture say, “It’s natural to pursue you own ambitions; it’s natural to want to get all you can for yourself,” then the Bible says, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and your other needs will be taken care of.”
When we come here on Sunday morning we are inviting God to challenge us, calling us to repentance. That’s why we have a prayer of confession every Sunday. That’s why we read the Bible every Sunday.
I realize that even our reading of the Bible can also be distorted by self-interest. The danger is in reading or paying attention only to the parts of the Bible we like, the parts that fit with our self-interest.
In the first frame of a Peanuts cartoon Snoopy is lying on top of his dog house looking up at the sky. Charlie Brown approaches him carrying a Bible and says, “For your edification I am reading from the book of Proverbs, sixth chapter, ninth verse: ‘How long, you loafer, will you lie there? How long until you rise from your sleep?’” Snoopy then sits up, takes the Bible from him, turns a few pages, and hands it back. Charlie Brown reads, “Chapter twelve, verse ten: ‘A good man cares if his beast is hungry.’” The last frame shows Charlie Brown in the kitchen, putting food into Snoopy’s bowl. He says, “I forgot that he used to teach Sunday School at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.”
It is easy for all of us, including pastors, to read only those parts of the Bible that we like, to focus only on the verses that fit what we already believe and want. The antidote is to immerse ourselves in the Bible, to be steeped in it, as Beaver said a few weeks ago. Really, we should all be teaching Sunday School like Snoopy. For only when we immerse ourselves repeatedly over time in the whole story of the Bible, especially the story of Jesus—only then will we get a feel for where God is going in this story and how God wants to make us part of it.
The leaders of that German church gathering in 1932 affirming Hitler were not ignorant of the Bible. They could quote the Bible, but they quoted only the verses that supported their views. They particularly liked the book of Ezra where the people of Israel were commanded to separate from their foreign wives or husbands and maintain the purity of their race. Of course they ignored the fact that in Ezra the Jewish people were the pure race, and the Gentiles, like the Germans, were the ones threatening to defile it. But they ignored that part of the story. More importantly, they ignored the larger sweep of the story. They ignored the fact that God called Abraham to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. They ignored the fact that Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations. They ignored the fact that in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, God gives us a vision of countless people from all races, nations, and languages standing together before the throne of God singing God’s praise.
The apostle Paul tells us that all scripture is inspired by God. Or as I would translate it, “The whole of scripture is inspired by God.” You can’t just read the verses you like. You have to immerse yourself in the whole thing to see where God is going.
And when we do that, Paul says, the Bible becomes “useful.” It becomes good “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Did you notice how all those words suggest some kind of challenge to us? If we read the Bible and come away thinking what we have always thought, we need to read more of it. The Bible reveals its power as the word of God not when it affirms what we’ve always thought but when it transforms us little by little into the people God wants us to be.
At a conference I once attended, Will Willimon, a Methodist minister, told about his first pastoral assignment at a small church in South Carolina. The year was 1968, and the town was in the middle of a major controversy over school desegregation. At the peak of the controversy there was a town meeting. Speaker after speaker stood up to denounce the whole idea of school integration, warning about what would happen if “they” were allowed to attend “our” schools. This went on for some time, mostly in angry tirades, until finally an old Southern Baptist minister stood up to speak. He had been a pastor in the community for over 30 years. He had baptized, married, or buried almost everyone in town, or at least one of their relatives. As he slowly made his way to the front, a hush fell over the meeting. He got to the front, opened his Bible, and began reading Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” He closed the book, looked out at the crowd and said, “Go home and read your Bibles,” and he sat down.
After that the meeting lost some of its steam. People began drifting away. And two weeks later the schools in that town desegregated without incident.
Through the Bible God speaks to us with a voice outside ourselves, a voice which has the power to transform our lives if we listen carefully enough and long enough to its message.