Have You Never Read the Scriptures?

what is the bible

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on October 8, 2017 as an introduction to a book study of Rob Bell’s, “What is the Bible?” 

Deuteronomy 34:7,  Isaiah 43:18-21

Matthew 21:33-46

I was recently talking to a church member about an issue in the morning’s headlines. Though we had differing opinions, the conversation was respectful. At some point I shared a Bible story about Jesus that seemed like a helpful way to frame the issue we were discussing. He all but rolled his eyes. It was obvious that for him, the biblical reference was irrelevant, meaningless, maybe even ridiculous. I was disappointed though not surprised. Even for lifelong Christians and every-Sunday church members, the Bible can seem peripheral to our day-to-day lives.

In the Bible passage from Matthew Jesus tells a parable of wicked tenants that is meant to criticize the leadership of the religious authorities. When it becomes apparent that the chief priests and Pharisees have missed his point entirely, Jesus responds, “Have you never read the scriptures?” He then quotes from one of the Psalms to strengthen his argument against these powerful Jewish leaders. Jesus is challenging them to hear their ancient texts in a new way.

I am not going to delve more deeply into the meaning of the parable itself, rather I am going to use Jesus’ challenge to church leaders, “Have you never read the scriptures?” as a challenge to us all to think about the Bible in a new way.

As I was reminded in my recent eye-roll-inducing encounter with a church member, many today just don’t take the Bible seriously. There are a whole host of questions that are commonly used to dismiss its value and authority. Why should we bother with such an ancient book? Isn’t it all myths and fairy tales? What about all the violence? And the contradictions? Isn’t it only those scary fundamentalist Christians that take the Bible so seriously?

Next Sunday, October 15, following worship we will begin a five week book study of Rob Bell’s latest book, “What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think About Everything.” Like Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees, Bell’s book invites us to approach the Bible in a new way, a way that reveals these ancient texts to be not just relevant but potentially life changing.

Most of the rest of this sermon will present Bell’s first chapter. My hope is that this will both make the case for the transforming power of the Bible in our lives today, but also entice you to sign up for the book study next week

Chapter 1, Moses and His Moisture

A little background. God promised to lead Abraham and his descendants to a better life in a new land. Many generations later, Moses leads Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt, accompanies them though 40 years in the wilderness, and finally arrives with them at a vista overlooking this long promised land of Cana. All this only to find out that he will not cross over with his people to this land of milk and honey, that here he will die.

This is where Bell begins, quoting a single verse from Chapter 34 of Deuteronomy:

Moses was a hundred and twenty five years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak or his strength gone.

OK, so admittedly, thus far this is the kind of Bible story that can make our eyes glaze over and our heads begin to nod. C’mon Pastor George, I thought you promised relevance.

At first it isn’t clear where Bell is going with this. He focuses in on one short phrase. Though Moses dies at the ripe old age of one hundred twenty-five, his strength is not gone. This is counter-intuitive, right? When we are old and die, it can be assumed we have become weak.

Then, Bell focuses in still further on a single word, the word translated as strength, the Hebrew word leho, which literally means moisture or fresh. Other translations read:

nor had is natural force abated

he still had vigor

he had not become wrinkled

Bell asks, “Do you see where this is going?” then makes it plain.

This phrase with the word leho here, just to make sure we’re all clear, is a euphemism for sexual potency. That’s what the storyteller here wants us to know about Moses at the time of his death.

That’s right, friends, Bell continues, Moses, the great leader of the Hebrews, the liberator who led his people out of slavery, the hero who defied Pharaoh, the one who climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, the towering figure of the Hebrew scriptures, when he died,

(and remember, I am quoting Bell here)

When he died, he could still get it up.

Now there’s something you don’t hear in church every Sunday!

And just so you know, this kind of playful, seeming irreverence, is typical of Bell’s writing. That said, this is as naughty as he gets in the book. So if you are sensitive about such things, you have now heard the worst.

So, beyond finding this mildly titillating, why should we care about Moses’ erectile functioning at his death?

For an answer Bell takes us back generations to Abraham. Before Abraham, there was a belief that there was nothing new under the sun. What happened to your ancestors, would happen to you, would happen to your children. God invites Abraham to step out of this cycle, to walk into a fundamentally new and better future. This was a new idea in human history. We aren’t stuck. We don’t have to repeat everything. Up until Abraham, humanity had fallen into a cycle of violence. Empires had formed that perpetuated systems of injustice. People are left to wonder, how much worse can it get?

This is the question that hangs in the air when God tells Abraham that he has a destiny to fulfill, to be the father of a new kind of people, a new era for humanity, an era built upon love not violence.

God tells Abraham that he and his progeny will be a blessing to all people on earth. Instead of being sent out to conquer, he is being sent to bless.

And how do you form a new kind of people that will take the world in a new direction?

You have kids.

And how do you have kids?

You have sex.

And sex involves – that’s right, says Bell – moisture and freshness.

He continues:

So when the writer tells us that Moses wasn’t wrinkled and his strength hadn’t abated and he still had his force, the writer is telling us that Moses was still able to participate in the creation of this new kind of tribe that would take the world in a new direction away from all that violence and destruction.

Can the world head in a new direction, or are we trapped, doomed to repeat that same old, tired cycle of conflict?

That’s the question at the heart of this Abraham and Moses story.

Of course, this question is just as relevant today as it was in Moses’ day.

And of course this question meant everything when Moses was called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. After all, why would Moses even try, or why would anyone follow him, if they believed that once a slave, always a slave.

Bell writes:

If you’re a slave, you have one burning question. Will we always be slaves?

Or to put it another way: Will Pharaoh always have the power?

Or to put it another way: Who’s side are the gods on – ours or Pharaoh’s?

Or to put it another way: Are the deepest forces of life for us or against us?

Or to put it another way: Are we here to suffer, or are we here to do something else, something bigger and better?

Or to put it another way: Does oppression or liberation have the last word? Does injustice or freedom win in the end?

So when Moses led his people out of Egypt, this wasn’t just the liberation of a specific tribe – it was the answer to a question people have been asking for thousands of years:

Are our lives set in stone and unable to change, or can we be set free from whatever enslaves us?

But it wasn’t just an answer to a question. This story about Moses and the Exodus was also a warning to anyone who has ever bullied another person, anyone who has ever held their boot on the neck of someone they were dominating, anyone who has ever used power and strength to dehumanize and exploit the weakness of another:

Your days in power are numbered because the deepest forces of the universe are on the side of the oppressed, the underdog, and the powerless.

 

And this is where Bell brings it all home.

For this Hebrew Tribe, then, passing this liberating and intoxicating idea along to the next generation was really important. That’s how you change the world, by entering into your own liberation and then passing that freedom and joy and liberation along to your kids.

And how do you get kids?

You have sex.

And how do you have sex?

Well, as we all know, that involves leho, moisture and freshness.

So, there you go.

A seemingly obscure, irrelevant affirmation of Moses’ organ potency, in Bell’s hands, leads us to confront the despair we all flirt with from time to time, are we stuck? Can we hope for anything better? These questions along with the accompanying doubt and despair we sometimes feel in response apply equally to our individual lives and to all humanity.

Bell concludes:

We started with a line about his life, which led us to a line about their life, which led us to your life and my life, which led us from the past to the present to the future of all life.

All that, from reading one line in…

the Bible.

And this brings us back to Jesus’ question for the Pharisees, “Have you never read the scriptures?” Which brings me back to my recent conversation with a church member about the news of the day. Which brings us back to the book study that begins next week.

In his light-hearted, seemingly-irreverent way, Bell responds brilliantly and beautifully to all those tough questions so many of us carry around about the Bible.

I close with that verse from Isaiah that I read:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Come next week and see for yourselves.

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