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Coming Home to the Word

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James 1:21-25

Your bulletin doesn’t have a scripture reference because it took me a while to choose one.  You see, when I started planning this sermon series on Coming Home, one of the first ideas that came to me was coming home to the Bible, or coming home to God’s Word. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who left it and had to come back. But I think it’s a common problem in the progressive church. We don’t believe we have to read it to be saved. We don’t believe it’s inerrant. We aren’t sure if we believe in the miracles. And pretty soon we’re not sure if it has any relevance whatsoever to our lives.

Raise your hand if you have a Bible in your house. Keep it raised if you know exactly where it is. Keep your hand raised if you have opened it in the last week—and remember that lying about reading the Bible is probably a sin!

The conservative church has us beat on this. Now, I’m not suggesting we all need to subscribe to the view that the Bible is inerrant and accurate in history and science. But, when we only bring our heads to the discussion, and not our hearts, we’re missing something huge. We miss the power that is at our fingertips.  So I struggled to choose a scripture because there are so many verses in the Bible about the Bible, or at least about the Word of God.

Hebrews 4 proclaims: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Yeah, not exactly what I was going for. I’ve had enough of the Bible being used as a weapon.

Psalm 119 says, “You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.” That’s a little better. At least the Bible is used for defense instead of offense.

2 Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” I like the image of scripture being God-breathed. But all of it? I’m not so sure.

Psalm 119: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you…. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” That’s a beautiful, familiar verse—but what does it mean?

Isaiah 40: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

Matthew 4: “Humans shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Those are all good scriptures, and I could preach on any one of them. But the one I finally settled on was this passage from James 1:21-25 “Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome [God’s] word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you. You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives.”

Now at first I thought what the writer said about the mirror was strange. Who looks in a mirror and then forgets what they look like? Well, actually I do . . . because in my mind’s eye, I am always at least ten years younger and twenty pounds thinner. I think many of us deceive ourselves. But I’m not sure that’s exactly what the writer meant.

The great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a beautiful essay about seeing ourselves in the mirror of the Word. He proposed that “the fundamental purpose of God’s Word is to give us true self-knowledge; it is a real mirror, and when we look at ourselves properly in it we see ourselves as God wants us to see ourselves.”[1]

To be honest, I’ve never thought of it this way. Oh, I’m familiar with the metaphor of the Bible as a mirror, and I have preached it. We hear the stories, and we imagine ourselves as the lamb who is lost, the child who is welcomed home. But the idea that the fundamental purpose of the Bible is to give us self-knowledge? Haven’t we been taught that the Bible’s fundamental purpose was to give us knowledge of God?

Maybe so, but that would be intellectual knowledge. Here you go: here is a book that tells you all about God. But first you have to get it translated, and probably by more than one person so you can make sure it’s right. And then you have to look at it like a scholar. Compare the translations. Read it as literature. Study the context of the original event and the context of the time it was written down.

But in the end, what does that do for us? What does intellectual study accomplish, if we’re not bringing our heart to the task, if we’re not taking the message to heart? Kierkegaard goes on to say, “The purpose of God’s revelation is for us to become transformed, to become the people God wants us to be, but this is impossible until we see ourselves as we really are.”[2]

And who we are is children of God who are sometimes really immature. Who we are is beloved creations of God who are also really screwed up. Who we are is co-creators with God who sometimes make really dumb choices. That’s who we are. Sometimes we graciously forgive people who don’t deserve it and sometimes we hate people we don’t even know and sometimes we allow prejudices to divide us instead of seeing what makes us the same.

This summer I had the privilege of seeing an amazing Broadway show called Come From Away. It is based on the true story of what happened on 9/11 when American air space was suddenly closed after the attacks. Flights were en route from all over the world, heading toward the United States, and they suddenly had no place to go. But in Gander, Newfoundland there is a huge, mostly unused airport. At one time, before planes could cross the Atlantic without refueling, they would stop in Newfoundland. But now that jets don’t need to refuel, the huge airport has only six flights a day. So 38 planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, a town of just 9000 people.

The passengers on the planes knew very little of what was going on. Some of the pilots told their passengers what had happened; others did not. This was before everybody had cell phones, and those who did have them had trouble getting calls to go through. They knew American airspace had been closed, and they knew there had been a terrorist attack, and they knew they weren’t being allowed off the planes. The rest was disjointed hearsay. Some of them had been in the air for 12, even 18 hours as they traveled around the globe, and once they landed, they weren’t allowed to get off the planes. The officials didn’t yet know the extent of the attack, or who was behind it, and every plane was suspect. All afternoon they sat. All evening they sat. Scared and with no way to even call their loved ones, to tell them they were safe. Some of them not even able to speak English.

It was after dark when the passengers were released and buses began taking the passengers—who the locals referred to as “the plane people”—to shelters in schools and churches and the Lion’s Club, in Gander and nearby towns. The people were terrified, traveling in darkness, to only God knew where.

I can’t describe it nearly as well as the musical did, so I want to play a clip. The first voice you will hear is a young woman who was on her first day of her new job as a tv news reporter. The second voice is the pilot of one of the planes. Then you will hear one of the bus drivers and his African passenger. Listen to their story.

“I try to interview the Red Cross, the Salvation Army – but they’ve got more important things to do than talk to me. That’s when I see them – the Plane People – through the bus windows. The terror on their faces. They have no idea where they’re going.”

“They take me and my crew in a separate van and I’m looking out the window, trying to see where we are, but it’s pitch dark. I’ve flown over this area hundreds and hundreds of times. And it’s just darkness – hardly any lights anywhere. And now here I am. Oh my god, this is just so remote.”

(Into the darkness, stars and the moonlight, but all around us nothing but darkness, darkness and trees.)

“Every school bus we got is goin’ back and forth all night, out to the Salvation Army Camp, We’ve delivered passengers from Germany, England, and France. And around 3 in the morning, my bus is designated to take all these African people out there.”

(Into the darkness.)

“My family and I try to see out the bus windows. No one tells us where we are going.”

“Silence comes on the bus. We get outside of Gander and you could hear a pin drop.”

“My wife and daughter are scared. They ask me what is happening and I do not know.”

(Darkness and trees)

“Behind me, this big man comes up to me and he says in this low voice, Wewe watuchukuwa wapi?

…what’s that, now? Finally, out of the darkness, my bus arrives at The Salvation Army camp.”

“We pass through a large gate and the bus pulls to a stop. And through the windows — out there in the darkness — we see all these people coming out of the buildings.”

“We rarely use them, but everyone’s dusted off their Salvation Army uniforms to welcome these people.”

“There are soldiers everywhere! The man at the front opens the door.”

I say, “Here you are. Out you go.” But he doesn’t understand. And he’s not getting off. None of them are But then I notice his wife — well, she’s clutching a bible. Now, obviously I can’t read It, but their bible — it’ll have the same number system ours does — so I ask to see it And I’m searching for something and then . . . in Philippians 4: 6. I give ‘em their bible and I’m pointing, saying, look! Philippians 4: 6 — Be anxious for nothing. Be anxious for nothing!”

“And that’s how we started speaking the same language!”

OUT OF THE DARKNESS, SUDDENLY BRIGHTNESS, EVERYTHING CHANGES DARKNESS AND TREES, SUDDENLY LIGHT.

Out of the darkness, suddenly brightness, everything changes. Philippians 4:6: Be anxious for nuthin! Those words did not begin an intellectual exercise. They did not start a scholarly debate. They soothed frightened souls—people who knew their Bible not as literature but as the Word of God to them, personally. Be anxious for nuthin. They saw themselves. And they saw each other. The Bible was their common language, their common ground. Be anxious for nuthin.

If you’ve been keeping the Bible at arm’s length because of how it was used against you, come home to look in this mirror and see how God sees you. If you’ve been keeping the Bible at arm’s length because it’s your best way of keeping God at arm’s length, come home to who you are and who you can be. And if you’ve never read the Bible and can’t quote a single verse, come to a place you never knew was home but is waiting for you. There’s lots of good stuff in here. Lots of painful stuff, too, and not all of it is relevant to your life. But you won’t know unless you try. Read it. Immerse yourself in it. But never let yourself or your faith be limited by it. God’s Word has no back cover. It is never finished. God is still speaking.

[1] Evans, Stephen. “Seeing Ourselves in the Mirror of the World.” Center for Christian Ethics.

[2] Ibid.

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