SERMON ~ 12/12/2021 ~ “Bible Study?”

READINGS: 12/12/2021 ~ Third Sunday of Advent ~ Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 ~ The Sunday on Which the Christian Virtue of Love Is Celebrated ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rt_k9ogbTUM.

Bible Study?

“Do not worry about anything; dismiss all anxiety from your minds;…” — Philippians 4:6a.

I want to start my comments today with a poem by Mary Oliver. The tile is Thirst.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh God,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

(Pause.) When I lead a Bible Study I try to let people know that when I, myself, personally study Scripture, I work with a specific premise. I think the premise is simple to explain and hard to do.

First, the simple explanation, the premise: we need to strive to understand what the passage or work meant to those who wrote it and what it meant to those who first read it. In short, what was the writer was trying to convey to the reader in those times?

Therefore addressing what is hard to do, in addition to the obvious, the content, there are many things we should try to understand. Among them are the political, religious, and economic systems, the context of the literature being explored. How did all those things work in those times?

Also of course, the Bible was written between roughly three thousand and two thousand years ago in ancient languages. Ancient Hebrew and Ancient Greek are not the same as their modern counterparts. Dissecting, parsing, analyzing all that is a tall order.

How tall is it? At best it’s a stretch to say we can even partially comprehend any of these in the context of the times in which Scripture was composed. We can’t.

Of course, popular culture insists it’s possible to understand Scripture by simply reading words we see only in translation as if all we have to do is read it and we’ll get it. You’ve heard me say this before. Popular culture is wrong— just plain wrong.

Given that, people sometimes ask the obvious next question. ‘Joe, if that’s true, that comprehension of Scripture is not in our wheelhouse, why should we bother to study Scripture at all.’ My take: that’s exactly why we should study Scripture. That’s exactly why we need to study— not just read Scripture but study Scripture.

To do otherwise is to treat Scripture like it’s a Genie in a magic lamp— rub the book, get your wish. Study is the place we need to start if we want to begin to understand Scripture. I think I’ve also said this here before: I do not take Scripture literally. I take Scripture seriously. (Slight pause.)

So let’s come back to the words we heard from Philippians. “Do not worry about anything; dismiss all anxiety from your minds;…” What is it these words can say to us when we explore the aforementioned context? (Slight pause.)

I hope this is obvious: these words sound very much like a series of exhortations, perhaps simply a blessing since we are not reading them in their historical context. As was stated when the reading was introduced, without context these exhortations might imply an unrealistic attitude toward life, a Pollyanna religion that ignores harsh tragedies and calls for a stoic like serenity.

So, what is the context? Philippians is written while Paul is in prison. Further, in this letter, Paul is addressing a rift in the church at Philippi.

More context— we have a poor understanding of the churches to which Paul writes. Perhaps we compare them to a modern idea of church or a gathering of a town. But it’s unlikely any of the churches to whom Paul writes are larger than about 50 people. So since Paul is addressing a rift here, this rift amounts to a family argument.

The last bit of context I need to address is a vital piece of information in a verse before the ones heard today. For some reason the lectionary lopped them off. Hence and obviously, studying a specific passage can mean looking beyond several words or verses in front of us.

So, in that earlier verse Paul addresses two women, Euodia (u-o-di-a) and Syntyche (syn-thi-chi). Why is this important context?

If we know anything about how women were treated in this era we know they are not treated as equals but as chattel, propriety. But Paul calls these women co-workers and says their names are recorded in the book of life because of their work.

I probably do not even need to point out what this indicates but I will. This speaks to how different, radical, liberal the Christian movement is in this era.

And that swings us back to the several verses we heard today. Given all that context, these exhortations are, this blessing is, in a real sense, out of place.

Why? This era, commonly referred to Pax Romana, in which Rome rules, is neither radical nor liberal. So to offer these exhortations, this blessing, in this place, at this time of the Roman Empire, at this time when Paul is imprisoned by the Roman Empire, at this time when there is a family feud at the church in Philippi, is both radical and liberal.

That brings me to a pivotal question. What does Scripture, what does the Bible as a whole describe? This is my answer. Scripture describes the story of the presence of God, the reality of God, in the life of the people of God.

Put another way, all of Scripture constantly describes the feelings of the people of God about God because they have encountered God. And having encountered God, these feelings get written down.

And that is one basic reason Paul offers these exhortations, this blessing and it’s appropriate. These are feelings experienced and feelings expressed having encountered God. (Slight pause.)

Why does Scripture need to be studied? Scripture needs to be studied to help us understand what our experience, our story of the presence of God might be, what the reality of God in our life might be.

I think studying Scripture helps us to identify where God is working among us. Once we do perhaps we might also offer exhortations, blessings. (Pause.)

This poem is Thirst by Mary Oliver.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh God,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.

(Pause.) Amen.

12/12/2021
South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: “This is a quote from the late author Rachel Held Evans: ‘When we say all people must say the same words or subscribe to the same creeds in order to experience God, we underestimate the scope and strength of God’s activity in the world.’ Scripture records emotions being expressed because of an experience of God. Perhaps as we study Scripture we can be encouraged to explore our emotions about our experience of God.”

BENEDICTION: Let us share our gifts, our hopes, our memories, our pain and our joy. Go in peace for God is with us. Go in joy for God knows every fiber of our being. Go in hope for God reveals to us, daily, that we are a part of God’s new creation. Go in love, for we rest assured, by Christ, Jesus, that the love of God is steadfast. Amen.

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