Carlos Wilton, August 5, 2012 – Non-Lectionary Sermon; 1 Timothy 3:1-17
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof,
for correction, and for training in righteousness…”
1 Timothy 3:16
Today we begin our series on “Banned Questions About the Bible.” Now, I’ll admit that the title of the book I’m using as the basis for this series is just a bit sensationalistic. Yet, I expect most of us can relate to the experience of being in a Bible-study setting – maybe a Sunday School classroom, or even in a conversation among friends – when you received the distinct impression it was not OK to ask certain questions about the Bible. Certain things you might have wondered about, but you had nowhere to go with such questions.
I’ve always been of the opinion that God gave us minds for one reason: so we can use them! I’ve never believed becoming a member of a church means checking your brains at the church door. So, I give you permission to ask away – either by voting for the questions you’d like me to tackle in the weeks ahead, or by talking with me by phone, or email or in person. Let’s use this sermon series as a way of tackling some of those tough questions together!
I also ought to let you in on the fact that, when it comes to some of these questions, I’m not entirely settled, in my own mind, on what the answer ought to be. Should we come to a question like that, I promise I’ll tell you so. Even after earning a couple of Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Theology, my faith is still a work in progress. I expect yours is, as well.
So, let’s begin. The topic for today – one I’ve chosen from the list myself, to get us started – is, “WHAT GOOD IS THE OLD TESTAMENT?”
It’s a question I remember my grandfather asking of me, years ago, just after I’d finished seminary. It absolutely floored me when I heard this man I’d admired all my life – a Presbyterian elder who had even gone to the General Assembly one year, representing Monmouth Presbytery as a commissioner – tell me he’d pretty much given up on the Old Testament. “All those stories of the slaying of thousands at God’s command, the outmoded purity laws no one would think of following today, the God who often seems so very angry: I can let that all go,” he told me. “I’m happy with just the New Testament. The teachings of Jesus and the God of love he came to tell the world about: now, that’s a Bible for me.”
Now, I don’t think my grandfather was coming to me for advice – my seminary degree and ordination aside, I was still his grandson. That aspect of our relationship hadn’t changed. He was sort of musing out loud, running the idea by me. It was clearly something he’d spent a long time thinking about.
I’m not sure what I said to him at the time. I think I cited some parts of the Old Testament that meant a great deal to me – and still do – like the prophecies of Isaiah and some of the Psalms. I think they still meant a lot to him as well, despite his bold and sweeping dismissal of the entire first part of the scriptures.
I’m quite sure of one thing I didn’t tell him. I didn’t tell him that among the valuable bits of information I’d acquired in seminary was that his categorical statement technically made him a heretic. I didn’t tell him there was even a name for that heresy: Marcionism.
Marcion was a leader of the early church who came to pretty much the same conclusion as my grandfather. He dumped the scrolls in his collection that contained the Old Testament books. He went walking around with just the New. And, he encouraged his followers to do the same.
The powers-that-were in the early church decided this just wouldn’t do. Eventually they got around to declaring that Marcion and all his followers were heretics, and that the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament were just as much the Word of God as those Greek books and letters written down after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Did you know that there’s even a place in the New Testament that speaks to the value of the Old? It’s from the passage we read this morning:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
In case you ever hear anybody tell you that this verse from 2 Timothy applies to all the scriptures – every last book, from Genesis to Revelation – don’t believe it. That’s simply impossible. The canon, or official collection, of the New Testament wasn’t even put together by the church until a couple centuries after these words were written.
No, the only scriptures the author of 2 Timothy could possibly be referring to are the Hebrew scriptures – what we know today as the Old Testament. Those books had long been assembled by the Jewish people into an authoritative collection.
So, there you have it, right from the New Testament itself: the Old Testament is the Word of God.
Well, that settles the problem, right?
Not so fast. There are those passages from the Old Testament that are troubling, to say the least.
My grandfather had his finger on a few of those. He was a medical doctor. He’d spent his career saving lives – especially the babies he brought into the world as an obstetrician, and the women he took care of in childbirth. He just couldn’t abide a passage like this one, from the book of Judges:
When [Samson] came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him; and the spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men. And Samson said, “With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.” When he had finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone… (Judges 15:14-16)
Or, I suppose, for that matter, I wonder what he thought about the plagues of Egypt imposed by Moses upon his captors. Really, now – a plague of boils? That would give the physicians of Egypt plenty to do, in the days before antibiotics! And what about the final plague that struck down the firstborn of Egypt? What kind of God would visit such of destruction on anyone, let alone a bunch of young children, whose lives were snatched away on account of their parents’ sin?
Some Old Testament passages get even stranger than that. There’s a story, for example, of the prophet Elisha that you can read about in 2 Kings, chapter 2. Elisha’s walking down the road one day, when a group of “small boys” see him and start making fun of his baldness. “Go away, baldhead!” they call to him.
There’s no doubt these kids are in the wrong. Their behavior is a massive failure to show proper respect to their elders. Yet, it’s not what they do, but what Elisha does next, that’s so difficult to accept. Here’s what the Bible says:
When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.
Was Elisha’s ego so wounded that, in a fit of rage, he used his prophetic powers to sic a couple of bears on those juvenile delinquents? (Misused his powers would be more like it.)
On the other hand, maybe God called out the bears. But that would be even harder to accept. Who could possibly love a God who not only lets such horrible things happen, but causes them to happen?
Then, there’s the ending of one of the shortest psalms of the Bible, Psalm 137. It’s a lovely and plaintive song of lament, that begins:
By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
It’s a beautiful and psychologically-true depiction of what life in exile is all about: the discontent of serving under harsh taskmasters, the yearning for freedom.
The writer of Psalm 137, it seems, just doesn’t know when to quit. He goes on to catalogue how terrible the Babylonian overlords are, how disrespectful of his people’s ways – and then he comes out with this:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Ouch! What sort of Bible is this, that glorifies infanticide? The people who did that sort of thing in Bosnia, as part of the horrible “ethnic cleansing,” got hauled before the International Criminal Court and charged with crimes against humanity. And this is the Bible that’s calling for such gory revenge?
You begin to see what my grandfather was going on about. Any Testament like that one is not the sort of Testament I want to have anything to do with – nor you, either, I’d expect!
That’s not to say the Old Testament has no redeeming value. The same Old Testament – even the same book, the book of Psalms, that gives us Babylonian children’s heads being split open on the rocks – also gives us the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The same Old Testament that doesn’t bat an eyelash at the ethnic cleansing of thousands also gives us the vision of eternal peace, of the lion lying down with the lamb, from the book of Isaiah.
I could go on and on, listing examples of troubling, violent imagery, of rape and murder and mayhem – of a wrathful God who seems to like nothing better than slinging thunderbolts. And I could lay those alongside other selections that capture the very essence of what it means to be human, living in relationship with God.
But that doesn’t get us any closer to answering our basic question: “What’s good about the Old Testament?”
The various writers who contribute to the Banned Questions About the Bible book all recognize the difficulties with the Old Testament, but they all come out saying, in the end, that we really do need it. We need it because, as one of them says, the Old Testament is the fertile soil in which the New Testament is planted. I suppose that’s kind of like saying you can’t grow tomatoes without digging in the dirt (and I mean no disrespect when I use the word “dirt). Where would a garden be without dirt? The juicy, fresh tomato you bite into, bursting with all the wonderful flavor tomatoes have this time of year, is actually made up of the dirt – yes, even the manure – that has to be present for the plant to grow. It’s all of a piece. You can try all you want, but you’ll never grow tomatoes on the sidewalk.
One of the respondents in the Banned Questions book even suspects that, without the Old Testament’s counterbalancing passion for justice, the New Testament can be twisted into a syrupy, self-serving, feelgood gospel that does nobody any good. Here’s what Jarrod McKenna says:
The New Testament is too easily co-opted when it is cut off from its context as the nonviolent hopes of Israel, in Jesus. This ripping of the roots of the New Testament from the fertile soil of the Old Testament leaves us with emaciated imaginations, susceptible to predatory forces seeking to feed us death-dealing spiritualities of otherworldly escapism.
The Old Testament is earthy in the truest sense of that word. You get the sense, reading those ancient words, that these are real people, facing real problems – and they’re just as subject to sin and shortcomings as any other human being. (That is to say, they’re a lot like you and me, when it comes to that.) Yet, these flawed and fallible human beings all have within themselves a hunger: a hunger they know – or, have come to learn – can never be satisfied unless they are in a living relationship with God.
What else could have dispatched Abraham on his epic journey, well after he had hit retirement age? Sure, there comes a time in that story when Abraham lays his son Isaac down on a stack of firewood, and gets ready to plunge a knife into the little boy’s chest, before putting the woodpile to the torch and burning him up as an offering to God. This, the long-expected son and heir whom Sarah had miraculously borne him in his old age! (And Abraham doesn’t even think to check with Sarah ahead of time and find out if the knife-in-the-chest thing is OK with her!)
God, of course, calls the whole thing off at the last minute. The Lord generously supplies his number-one guy with a ram to sacrifice instead – but, still, we’re left asking ourselves, what kind of crazy, psycho, bad-news, religious-fanatic father is this Abraham, anyway?
Maybe the miracle is that God manages to pull off this long-shot, chosen-people, everlasting-covenant thing in spite of the frail and sinful human flesh that’s all God has to work with!
Whenever I lead a funeral service, I like to give members of the family a chance to say a few words: personal reflections about their loved one who’s just died. When such a talk is done well – and it was done wonderfully well yesterday, by Fran Schmidt’s two sons, Gary and Wayne – it captures the complete human being, the foibles and even the sins, that go along with the virtues. Sometimes I marvel at the intimacies family members share in such a moment: offered up to friends and even mere acquaintances, as a final gift of love.
We’re all such complicated packages! Anyone who’s bold (or crazy) enough to love us – any one of us, we’re all the same in that regard – has got to accept the whole person. And do you know something? After a lifetime of living, and struggling to get along with another person, even the faults and foibles end up being something we love, memories we can share with profound gratitude.
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says it as well as anyone, I think, reflecting on what the Bible has meant to her:
My relationship with the Bible is not a romance but a marriage, and one I am willing to work on in all the usual ways: by living with the text day in and day out, by listening to it and talking back to it, by making sure I know what is behind the words it speaks to me and being certain I have heard it properly, by refusing to distance myself from the parts of it I do not like or understand, by letting my love for it show up in the everyday acts of my life.
You and I, my friends, will only succeed in being biblical people if we are willing to live with those sacred texts, to make our understanding of them the work of a lifetime. We don’t pick and choose the parts of the Bible we like, any more than any one of us can choose the family we’re born into. Such relationships, at their very best, are holy: and, we trust – with the help of the Holy Spirit – inspired.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.