Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
June 17, 2012

Scripture:

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

What is the Bible? How are we to use it? What is its authority for us? These are central questions of the Christian faith. For whatever else the Bible may be, it is our book. It contains the foundational story of our faith, the story of Jesus Christ. We study it. We use it in worship. Many Christians call themselves Bible believing Christians. More Christians believe that the Bible is or at least contains the word of God. You have probably heard the Bible used as an answer book for life. Iíve heard preachers ask a question and then say ďLetís see what God says about thatĒ as they turn to some passage in the Bible for an answer. For so many Christians everything in the Bible has to be true because, for them, it comes from God, and the Bibleís primary function is to answer our questions about life and about God.

This morning I want briefly to consider these two understandings of the Bibleóthat everything in it is true and that its primary function is to provide answersóin light of the two Bible passages we just heard. The first of those passages is about King Saul. Saul was the first king of Israel. As the Bible tells the story God had chosen Saul to be king when the people demanded that they have a king, which they hadnít had before. To make a long story short, the prophet Samuel told Saul that God was making him king. Then God got mad at Saul and revoked his appointment as king. Thatís whatís going on in our passage. God takes the kingship away from Saul because Saul disobeyed a directive from God, but we donít hear in the passage this morning what the directive was that Saul had disobeyed.

As the Bible tells the story, the directive that Saul disobeyed was that Saul was to attack a people called the Amalekites. God ordered Saul to attack them and to kill living thing among the Amalekitesómen, women, children, and all the animals. He was to kill their king, named Agag. Saul attacked them alright, but he disobeyed God in that he did kill all the people but he spared the life of king Agag, and he kept some of the better animals for himself rather than kill them. Thatís why in our story Godís prophet Samuel kills king Agag, and itís why Saul gets un-anointed as king and, eventually, David gets anointed in his place.

To be perfectly blunt about it, for me that story isnít true. At least itís not true when it says that it was Godís command that one king and one people attack another king and another people and kill every living thing among those people. It isnít true that a true prophet of God would murder anyone, as in this story Samuel murders Agag. It isnít true that God would turn against someone because that person hadnít killed enough people and animals. The God I know and love never would order such a horrible thing, and never did. And I doubt that the God that you know and love ever would do or ever did that either. This story isnít true as fact in what it says about God, and it isnít true as metaphor or myth in what it says about God. In what it says about God this story, which is in the Bible and which is the way the Bible tells the story of the rise of the great king David, simply isnít true.

Then thereís our passage from the Gospel of Mark. In that passage Jesus tells two seed parables and says that they are about the Kingdom of God. In one parable seed grows although the sower of the seed doesnít know how. In the other the tiny seed of a mustard plant grows into a great bush in which birds make their nests, never mind that mustard isnít really like that. Thatís what Jesusí parable says.

Jesus doesnít explain these parables. Jesus almost never explains his parables. They are puzzling. They say things that his audience would know arenít quite true, like the bit about how big the mustard plant gets. Jesusí parables for the most part donít so much provide answers as they pose questions. Jesus left things hanging all the time, and he did it on purpose. Mark tells us in our passage that Jesus taught the people only in parables and that he didnít explain them to the ordinary people like us. He is the one to whom we Christians turn first of all for answers about life and about God, and in his primary teaching device, the parable, he doesnít give us answers. It leaves us wondering and puzzled.

There are lots of other examples of things in the Bible that just arenít true, either factually or metaphorically. There are lots of other places where the Bible doesnít so much give answers as it leaves us with questions, but I think our two passages this morning make the point well enough. There are things in the Bible that just arenít true in any sense of the word true, and there are lots of passages that donít even try to give us answers but rather quite intentionally leave us with questions, especially in the teachings of Jesus.

So what are we to say? What are we to make of these facts about the Bible, which to me at least seem undeniable? If the Bible isnít always true, and if the Bible doesnít always give us answers, what is the Bible? How are we to use it, or, perhaps, can we use it at all? To answer those questions let me suggest a different way of looking at and using the Bible that I at least believe is a whole lot richer than the traditional way of claiming that everything in the Bible is true and that the Bible is primarily lifeís answer book.

Let me suggest that you try looking at the Bible not as absolute truth and absolute answer but as invitation. Try looking at the Bible not as didactic but as invitational. Not as something that simply lays out Godís truth and Godís answers but as something that invites us into its great stories and its great sayings. Those stories and those sayings arenít God speaking about humans, they are humans speaking about God. They are the recorded experience and understanding of the ancients of our tradition. They are the stories of the ancient Israelites and of the earliest Christians, and they invite us into them not simply to hear but to participate.

The Bible is the foundational book of our faith. Because it is we canít ignore it, but obviously we canít take everything in it as the word of God either. We canít take everything in it as an answer to lifeís questions. Rather, because the Bible is the foundational book of our faith the Bible invites us in. It invites us to learn what the experiences and understandings of the ancients of our faith was. It invites to enter into those experiences and those understandings, to try to comprehend them, to think how they thought, to understand what they thought and why they thought it.

Then, just as importantly, the Bible invites us to hold their experiences and their understandings up to our own. The Bible doesnít say we must think like they did, for we live in a very different world than they did with different knowledge about the world and Godís creation then they had. The Bible doesnít say that their ancient understands are Godís eternal truth. It says their ancient understandings were their ancient understandings. It says to us: Come on in! Itís ancient authors say: Share with use. Learn from us. Discern with us. We are a resource for you. We can be a guide for you. But we are not a crutch for you. You donít get off as easily as simply repeating what we said, as simply accepting our understandings as your understandings or as Godís understandings. Come on in, they say, then do your own work. Do your own discernment. We did ours, now you do yours.

Friends, our task isnít to learn what the Bible says then simply parrot it. Our task is to enter into the Bible, to learn what it says about its ancient peopleís understandings of human life and of God, but then to hold those ancient experiences and understandings up to our own experiences and understandings and to discern what in the Bible is true for us and what isnít. To discern what is an answer and what is a question. And then with the questions to discern our own answers.

Using the Bible that way is a lot harder than having someone hand you pat answers out of the Bible the way so many Christian preachers and teachers do. Using the Bible that way invites us to do some hard work, and letís face it; when it comes to questions of faith most of us want easy answers not hard work to find our own answers. But I am convinced that the reality of the Bible, that it isnít all true, that it doesnít always give answers as much as it asks questions, but rather invites us to do our own work of discernment, is very, very good news. It is good news because it is why the Bible is still alive for us something like 1,900 years after its most recent words were written. Itís why the Bible is still a fount of wisdom and inspiration for us who live in a culture so radically different from the cultures that produced it. So when you pick up a Bible listen to its invitation. Listen to it saying ďCome on in!Ē Come on in to learn, to grow, to discern, to be transformed. Not because all the truth and all the answers are here but because here you can do your work of your own discernment in rich soil that can bear much fruit. Amen.