Monday, October 18, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Scripture Alone

Preached Sunday, October 17

“Anchors for the Storm: Scripture Alone”

Scripture Readings: Psalm 19; 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5; John 5:24-47

Many years ago, the great author G.K. Chesterton and some other writers were brought together for an interview. Among the many questions, they were asked what book they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. One said he would want “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”. Another said he would want the Bible. Chesterton spoke up and said, “I would choose “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Ship Building”.

Chesterton knew that his life on that deserted island should be driven by a single guiding purpose. If he had access to one book on that island, he would want it to be a book that matched that driving purpose.

We have been designed and given life, in this world, by God, for a purpose, and God has designed and given life to a book, in this world, that matches our purpose. We call that book the Bible, or the Scriptures.

The name Bible means book. Scriptures means the things that have been written down and brought together for this purpose, in this book. (Actually the scriptures form a one volume library-full of books.)

The message of the scriptures, the message of the story they contain, tells us that the God who made us, and who made all things, is a God who loves relationships. It tells us that this God takes delight in the presence of love and faithfulness in these relationships.

Psalm nineteen tells us that this God designed his creation to be capable of speaking for him. He made it to communicate his joy to those who heard it speak for him. “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” (Psalm 19:4-5) The same Psalm also tells us that God has ways (God has patterns) and that he wants these ways to be our ways (and patterns) too. It tells us that when God’s ways are our ways it is life-giving to us: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” (19:7)

The word law here is the Hebrew word Torah, which applies to the first five books of the Scriptures. Even though it is generally translated as “law”, Torah doesn’t mean law in the sense of rules and regulations. It means ways, and patterns, and the teachings about those things.

The Book of Genesis, with its account of creation, and with its account of the Lord calling people to be his beloved people, starting with old man Abraham and old lady Sarah, is a book that shows us the ways, and patterns, and teachings of God. The events described in the laws of Genesis are the ways of God, and they are told to us in such a way as to give us a living experience of God that will revive the life within us. God’s way of creation and calling people to faith are told to us in such a manner that will give us joy. It is told in a way that will give us light to see great things, and take us out of ourselves and into the light of God’s love.

Moses was the first of God’s people who were commanded to write things down (Exodus 17:14), and so the five first and oldest books of the Bible have been called the books of Moses. Moses was commanded to write things down so that God’s ways would be remembered; so that people in the future could meet and experience God through what had been written. In reading what God had done, they could meet the Lord and live.

Jesus told his hearers about the purpose of the scriptures. He told them: “You study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:39-40, 46-47)

Now this Sunday, and in the weeks ahead, we are going to look at five guiding phrases from about five hundred years ago, from the age we call the Reformation.
These historical phrases do not come down to us as a set. They weren’t dreamed up all at once. They weren’t all designed to meet one great issue. But they all serve a similar purpose. I imagine these guiding phrases to be like different anchors dropped from a boat at various times.

The funny thing about each of these phrases is that each has the word “alone”. These phrases are: scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone. They are five things that serve alone. How can all five things together be alone?

Ancient ships often carried several anchors as a protection during storms. When the storm winds were shifting and constantly changing direction, multiple anchors, set in multiple directions, would hold the ship steady as the wind changed. First it was the anchor from the bow that held them. Then it was the anchor from the stern. Each anchor brought its own support as the storm changed direction around the ship.

Our own struggles and challenges can come from any direction. These anchors hold us and keep us from being driven by the storm. They hold us from different directions safely in the center of the purpose for which God has designed our lives. Each anchor holds us in our proper relationship with God in Christ.

We are creatures of God; children of God. But there is a drive within our nature to be rebels, to assert our independence from God.

There is a drive within our nature to achieve a kind of mastery, to make a false picture of ourselves, to make ourselves the one we really worship (as if life were all about us). This drive makes us seek to set ourselves up as a god for others (so that they will bend themselves to what we want). As impossible as it may seem, we even want to be in charge of God himself, because we find God’s independence so frustrating.

Each of these anchors holds us safe in the relationship where God alone is God, and we are always safe in our real identity as creatures and children of God who are secure in our real God related lives.

The heart of the scriptures is a relationship with God in Christ. Paul says this to Timothy: “From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

The Scriptures are inspired for the purpose of shaping our lives for that relationship with Jesus, because we are all going to see Jesus. And Paul says this, as he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom…” (2 Timothy 4:1)

One of the dangers is that we will be subtly tempted to change the good news of the Gospel of Jesus into a set of facts, and into a field of knowledge. We are tempted to see the Bible as a textbook of information about the Lord. We are even tempted to see the Bible as a textbook about other subjects that are of interest to us. We stop meeting the personal Jesus in the scriptures and we compensate by absorbing facts and ideas.

Some people make it seem like a hard thing to master the facts of the Bible, and they may try to boss others around on the basis of their special knowledge, or they might try to pull others down who seem to know less of the facts and less able to quote from book, chapter, and verse.

Others are tempted to give up, because they know they will never catch up. Those who give up will either follow those who have all the answers, or else they will go away.

Jesus confronted those who denied him because they built up authority over others through their technical expertise in the information of the scriptures. They thought that this mastery would give them life, or make them larger than life. In reality the experts used their mastery of facts as an escape from being prepared and shaped for a life-giving relationship with the Father and the Son.

We have a God who loves relationships. We have a God who created us for these relationships. We have a God who (when we tried to set up our lives on our own authority, and ruined the world as a consequence)…we have a God who came down in Jesus to live and die for us, who overcame the power of death for us to unite us to himself in a way that depends on him from first to last.

And since this God gave us the scriptures as the place where we can meet him and live, we want to be sure that we do truly meet him. We want to come to the scriptures so we can come face to face with him and really know him.

But we want to never settle on loving merely what we know about Christ. We want to go beyond the things we know so that we can love the Christ we know. There is just a difference. Knowledge is great, but love will beat knowledge every time.

When I was a child, I wanted attention. But, more than that, I wanted to draw attention. I wanted to earn attention.

I didn’t want to earn it by getting in trouble because I wanted people to like me and admire me. I found that some of the ways that other kids attracted and earned attention did not come easily for me. Athletic skill did not seem to come easily, but skills in information and knowledge did.

And so I decided to become brilliant. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Plenty of kids wanted to be great. They wanted to be athletes like Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas and nobody thought the worse of them because of this.

So I wanted to be brilliant. I read, and I read, and I read. I browsed through dictionaries. I sifted through encyclopedias. When I was ten, I had loads of books on history, and archeology, and technology, and science. I had a telescope. I had a microscope. I loved this.

I neglected my school work because it got in the way of acquiring knowledge. I might only be getting a C in a class, but I could answer all the teacher’s questions. This felt good. I achieved mastery.

But I can tell you that there was no real life in this. Knowledge is great, but love beats knowledge every time. The experts in the scriptures, who achieved mastery through their study and their knowledge, possessed the scriptures. They possessed them, but in the process they lost the God of the scriptures. They lost Christ. Some of the most seemingly biblical Christians possess the scriptures, but they may have very little of Christ beyond the joy of the facts.

Where this happens, you can see it either in the woodenness of the discipline of their lives; or in the condition-making of their ties with others or in their acceptance of others. The Jesus that lives in them does not welcome sinners. The Jesus that lives in them is not a very redemptive Jesus. They have romanced the Bible itself, and its authority, thinking that in doing so they have romanced the Jesus of the Bible. But they have made a mistake.

When we say that scripture alone is an anchor of the Christian life and can hold us safe in any storm we mean the scriptures as Jesus saw them. The scriptures are the true and honest portrait of Jesus.

When I go to an art museum I love to look at the portraits of people from long ago. In the best portraits the people in them look ready to laugh. They look ready to step out of the frame and talk to you, or else run their sword through you.
The Bible is the best portrait of all. By the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus does step out of the frame; and he speaks to you, and challenges you, and offers his salvation to you: his infinite and everlasting friendship and lordship.

We say that scripture alone is an anchor for any storm because it offers the whole Jesus. The scriptures don’t just give us the words of Jesus. They give us the work of Jesus. They give us the body and blood of Jesus.

Even the Old Testament, Jesus said, is a place where we can get the whole reality of him. In the Gospel of Luke, after the resurrection, Jesus meets his disciples and we read this: ‘He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ (Luke 24:25-27)

We are tempted to love only a part of Jesus, and not the whole Jesus. There are parts of Jesus we don’t understand. There are parts we may not like. There are parts we are afraid of. There are mysteries about Jesus (about exactly who he really is) that confuse us. There is the talk about sin and forgiveness that we may resist. We are tempted to construct a Jesus after our own image, and in our own likeness; a Jesus built to our own specifications.

Scripture may be misinterpreted, and abused, and forced into boxes of someone else’s making, or of our own imagination. Scripture alone saves us from the distortions, and the oversimplifications, and the additions, and the subtractions of those who claim to have authority when, all the while, they are only reaching for mastery. Scripture alone protects us from our own temptations to be the master, to be the one in control, and to create a truth of our own invention.

Just because scripture may be misused doesn’t make it imperfect, because many perfect things can be misused. Love itself can be misused. The innocence of another person can be abused.

Scripture, though, in all its strange, confusing perfection is simply there, like a person you may not want to look at too closely for fear that they might look back at you. Scripture is like a person you don’t want to talk to about anything personal, because you are afraid of what they might say. Scripture is like a brother or sister or an old friend who knows you too well to let you pretend to be something you aren’t, or let you retell an old story in your own favor.

Our relation with scripture alone is like the relationships within a marriage or family where you never stop learning about another person. It is hard in the sense that you never fully get to the bottom of the other person. After a life-time together, that person will still amaze you and confound you. But this difficulty is not the hardship try to make of it. This difficulty is a sign of the blessing of a living, growing relationship. Our relationship with the Bible is like that.

If there was someone who was always trying to come between the two of you, in order to explain the real message of the one you loved; if there was someone who claimed some kind of authority to speak to you on their behalf; you would know that something was very wrong. Something was either fishy about them, or you were missing something pretty important. This is why we want a direct relationship with God through the Bible. We want a relationship with God where we can say, “Scripture alone.”

Scripture alone can be trusted to give you God in his fullness, just as he is. Scripture alone can be trusted to show you yourself, just as you are; and to show you your true self, as God wants you to be, and how he plans to get you there.

We can meet God in nature, and in the lives of those around us, but the scriptures show us the living portrait of God in Christ. It shows us a portrait of God in the manger, and in the carpenter shop, and along the road, and on the cross, and coming out of the empty tomb.

Scripture shows us a God who has come to give us a new life in a way that no landscape, and no sun or moon or stars, and no other human being can give you. Here, in the scriptures alone, God Himself gives us something we need. He gives us himself.

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