Sunday, August 24, 2014

To the Law and the Testimony!

Sermon on Isaiah 8:16-20; Zechariah 7:9-13; and Acts 17:1-4, 10-12.  Delivered 24 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God given to show us, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, our sinful condition before God.  It likewise shows us the way of salvation and provides the instruction we need to develop spiritually and to walk acceptably before God in the new path of faith.  [...]  These Scriptures, given by Divine inspiration, contain the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation; so that whatever is not contained therein nor can be proved thereby is not to be enjoined on any as an article of faith. (Discipline 142.1.2; 104)
So says the Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church.  And while any brief summary like this always has to oversimplify things, this is what we believe.  What we have in the Bible is absolutely amazing.  Here, in the form of many kinds of literature written over the course of over a thousand years, is a sweeping explanation of the history of the universe, from creation to new creation.  It tells, explains, and advises us as we live through the story of God's holy love for a sinful people in a fallen world, and how God conquers all the principalities and powers that try to woo us away from him – including the corruption in our own hearts.  This story is the Truth, because it climaxes in the One who proved himself to be the Way for wayward sinners, the Truth for a muddled world, and the Life to revive our dryness and our death.  That story told by the Bible defines our reality, whether we humbly accept it or pridefully write our own stories – and so, for Christians, it sets the proper context for our lives.

As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who fully affirmed and praised the scriptures of the Old Covenant - the Law and the Prophets – and showed how they pointed to him, how he was so deeply woven into their fabric at every point – so deeply woven that the Pharisees, for missing him there, might as well have been unfamiliar with the whole thing.  As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who established the New Covenant in his blood and whose earliest followers testified in writing of what he himself had taught them and was still teaching through them in their ministries.  If we are unwilling to let ourselves be shaped by the whole story, then we risk still holding something back from Christ's claim as Lord, his determination to have every inch of us all to himself.  Our beliefs, our attitudes, and our worldview need to be shaped by the Bible, by God's revelation and message, which bears witness to what he has done and how he will bring his good work to completion on the Day that is to come.

In our culture today, we are often surrounded by groups that insist the Bible is to be judged, or at least interpreted, only in terms of their own spiritual experiences or life experiences.  We all know, for instance, of the Mormons, who usually place a premium on 'personal revelation' as effectively superseding whatever the biblical text says – unless it happens to agree with what they already think.  And I've lost track of how many professing Christians, when confronted with something in the Bible that they don't immediately understand or like, I've heard say something like, "Well, so what?  Don't you know that this is 2014?  That may be true for you, but my experience in life says different."  They – and sometimes we – judge the Bible in terms of how well it conforms to their own attitudes, their own personal opinions about God, their own cultural background or desires or ethical preferences or agendas borne from their own experiences.  Contrast this to the attitude of Charles Wesley, who reflected on Isaiah 8:20 in these lyrics (Poetical Works 9:380):
Doctrines, experiences to try,
We to the sacred standard fly,
Assured the Spirit of our Lord
Can never contradict His word:
Whate'er His Spirit speaks in me,
Must with the written word agree;
If not – I cast it all aside,
As Satan's voice, or nature's pride.
Charles Wesley was right to judge all things by the Scriptures – understood rightly and truly, of course.  Sadly, we are also often surrounded by groups and people who insist that the Bible must surely agree with their ideas, and so they – and sometimes we – go hunting around in the Bible for ways to support those ideas, and then ignore or twist the rest.  These groups – like Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance – often insist that they are being faithful to what the Bible means on its own terms.  They – and sometimes we – give great lipservice to the authority of the Bible, and if my friendship with a number of Jehovah's Witnesses has taught me anything, it's that they believe themselves to sincerely mean it.  But still the agenda is that of their pet theology, working through a smattering of out-of-context verses and a modern mindset, rather than the authentic 'agenda' of God as he inspired the biblical writers.

God calls us to reject both of these approaches, although even the most sincere and dedicated Christians often stumble into forms of both from time to time.  God calls us to first read the Bible responsibly – and then to take him at his word.  This means using our heads and our hearts, and learning what we can about the way the scriptures fit together and respond to their original settings and now, through that, ours; and it means reading the Bible together, bringing all our gifts and graces to the table.  John Wesley once wrote (Works [1812] 12:230, 233):
Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm!  O keep at the utmost distance from it: give no place to a heated imagination.  Do not hastily ascribe things to God.  Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God.  They may be from him.  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil.  Therefore "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God."  Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.  You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context.  And so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.  [...]  Beware of judging people right or wrong, by your own feelings.  This is no scriptural way of judging.  O keep close to the law and the testimony!
Amen and amen!  If I had to quibble with any of it, I'd clarify that 'literal' here should cover all the different ways the Bible communicates in styles of literature – some of which are relatively straightforward narrative, and some of which aren't.  But even Wesley is very clear: we must stick to the clear meaning of the text, as clarified and taken in connection with the context – the context of the passage, of the book, of the time and place and culture where it was written, and of the Bible as a whole.  And once we do that, and once we take into account how it might speak from that setting to our sometimes-the-same, sometimes-different world today, what is equally clear is this: we must "keep close" to it, we must test all things by it, we must rely on it as the word of our God, to be trusted faithfully and obeyed diligently, just as the Berean Jews did in Acts 17 in testing even a true apostle of Jesus Christ against it.

Rather than turn aside to other authorities, we do celebrate all truth that anyone can teach us – whether scientific, philosophical, religious, historical, ethical, cultural, or whatever – but we recognize it in the light of the Bible as properly understood in context by the living witness of the whole Christian church and through the devoted and heartfelt study that marks the discipline of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  This is the standard, and we are called to cling to it, unlike the sinful people of Zechariah 7 who stubbornly refused to heed the Law or the Prophets – both of which were given by God to instruct them – and to instruct us, alongside their fulfillment in the New Covenant scriptures.

As Isaiah 8 shows us, we aren't to run aside after mediums, psychics, fortune-tellers, horoscope-mongers, spiritualists, gurus, or any other false God-alternative; we are called to stick to God's word of instruction, God's commandments, God's design for human flourishing, and God's testimony to what he has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do in the whole Body united to their living Head by the bonds of the Spirit he has poured in our hearts.  Thanks be to God for entrusting his sacred word to his people, and for giving us the Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can read it together and put these words into practice.

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