Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Bible as an Interesting Thing

Preached on July 10, 2011 as part of a short series of Questions submitted by my congregations.

Scripture readings:
Exodus 17:8-16; John 5:30-47

Somebody asked me this question: “Which two books (of the Old Testament and New Testament) do you think are most interesting and why?” I asked you to give me some questions and this is one of the questions that I can’t really answer. It’s too hard a question.

The obvious reason, in my case, is that this is a question, after all, about books. It is as impossible as the question, “What is your most favorite book in all the world?” And the Bible is a book full of books; a world full of books. Only two answers are possible: whichever book I happen to be reading at the time; or, dozens and dozens of them.

But I’m not going to tell you the dozens of books in the Old and New Testaments that I find the most interesting, and why. I am just going to tell you a few. Then I hope to share with you a bit about what the Bible is, and why Jesus is interested in it for your sake.

For me, the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Genesis; the first book in the Bible. Genesis means beginning. It is not just the beginning of the Bible. It tells us the beginning of the universe, the beginning of everything, which it calls “the heavens and the earth.”

I am interested in Genesis because I like to know where things and people come from. I like to know what makes them tick; why they are the way they are. I like to know the purpose of things. I like to know the meaning of things. And an important part of the answers to those questions are often to be found in their beginnings, especially when things begin with God. And what doesn’t begin with God?

I am interested in Genesis because it tells me who I am, why I am here, why I am the way I am, and what my life means. It tells me the beginning of my story and it gives me hints about the end of my story; I mean my everlasting future.

It answers the same questions about you. It tells me so much about you, and this world you and I live in!

My favorite books in the Old Testament are the books that Genesis leads us into: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books tell the story of God bringing his long enslaved people out of their centuries of bondage in Egypt, and how God led them through the desert into the Promised Land.

You would think it would be a joyful story. Think of hiking and camping with God. But God’s own, chosen people are so awful to God. They are so stupid about life, and themselves, and they are stupid (most of all) about God: who is right there, hidden from them only by the shape of a pillar of cloud and fire. Sometimes they can even hear God. And they are so picky, and petty, and whiny, and completely incapable of faith. And God’s love, in return, is so faithful, so patient, and so, so scary; and so strong.

These books tell me about the Ten Commandments that are the basic pattern of the life for which God has designed us and created us. They tell me about the other laws, and rules, and ways of doing things that would help God’s people stay focused on him, and prepared for him.

This was so that they would recognize him when he came to earth in Jesus. We know how well that worked.

I love these books that tell me about this. They tell me what it means to belong to the messed up people of God who are so passionately and frighteningly loved by God; so strongly and faithfully loved by God. They don’t tell me about some other people of God who have nothing to do with me. They tell me about all people of God, including me.

For me the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Psalms, which is the book of prayers, and praises used by the people of the Bible for worship. They pray like this: “Arise, Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies.” (Psalm 7:6) They pray like this: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) They pray like this: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” (Psalm 23:1) They pray like this: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

The ancient prayer and worship book of God’s people teaches me that I can be myself, and come to God, whatever I am thinking and feeling, and straight come out with it to him. They tell me that God is big enough to take it. And God is big enough to change my heart even when I foam at the mouth, and fret, and stew, and sweat, and wallow.

This tells me about the love and power of God. It tells me that God can change me when I pray, no matter what I may pray; and no matter whether my worship is beautiful or ugly.

For me, the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Job. I have shared the message of Job about injustice, suffering, and loss several times this year with people who needed it. The key verse is in chapter 42, verse 5: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” This is the voice of Job, saying that he is satisfied.

This is the answer to every desperate question. It is one of the most important messages in the whole Bible.

For me, the most interesting book in the Old Testament is the Book of Isaiah. There is no time to tell you why.

Now we go to the New Testament.
For me, the most interesting book in the New Testament is Matthew-Mark-Luke-and-John. I like it because I like seeing the maker of the heavens and the earth as a human baby in Bethlehem. I like to hear what the grown-up Jesus says and does.

It is interesting to see who Jesus welcomes kindly, and who Jesus is hard on, and to ask myself, “Which one of those am I?” It is interesting to think of standing in the crowd and wondering what I would do with this Jesus. It is interesting to be one of the twelve disciples when they are confused by Jesus; and to fear along with them on the final road to Jerusalem and the cross.

Long ago, in the spring of my twentieth year, I wrote a poem about this experience that goes like this.

I see you walk among the sick,
The poor, those laden with despair;
Yet something more than love is there
That makes my soul within me quick.

I see you bending, making clay,
And with your fingers touch blind eyes.
As dusty as you are, the skies
(I almost think) would sing your praise.

I could believe, if I could bend:
The others being moved to tears
Around me (men mature in years);
Thinking you their sorrows end.

So much fervor! Yet I too
Sense some strange power when I see
You turn and fix those eyes on me:
Lord, can I also follow you? (Written spring 1972)

My favorite book in the New Testament is the Book of Acts. In its opening lines, Acts tells that it is about all the great things Jesus continued to do from the throne in heaven through the lives of his people who are called to be his church, his family, his body on earth, his hands and feet on earth. These actions of Jesus (which he continues to do through us) were (and are) great things. I see timid, fearful people acting boldly in the face of danger and uncertainty, because the love of God has empowered them through the energy of the Holy Spirit.

God enables them to go where they never would have gone on their own. God enables them to speak with people they never would have given the time of day. God enables them to do what they never would have dreamt was possible.

God’s people were continually in an alternating state of puzzlement and amazement, and this made them thankful and compassionate people. This made them hated by some and sought out by others. I find it interesting to live with them in that continually alternating state of puzzlement and amazement.

For me, the most interesting book in the New Testament is “The Collected Letters of Paul and the Apostles”; especially Paul. I enjoy having Paul for a companion because I am often so reserved and so worried about the awful things that may happen if I forget my reserve. But Paul wears his heart on his sleeve and never worries about this at all.

It’s a good team. He and Timothy formed a team like that, as well. I can see it did Timothy so much good, as it has done for me.

For me, the most interesting book in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation. I love the pictures. I love wondering about them. They are pictures of glory, and horror, and ecstasy. Best of all, is the fact that it all ends with ecstasy.

I am most interested in this book because (as my mom and sisters could tell you) I am one of those readers who have to peek at the end of a book if I want to be able to keep on till the end. And so God apparently designed the Bible for people just like me.

So those are the two books (within the Old Testament and New Testament) that I think are the most interesting and why.

It is an interesting question. But hope, from what I have shared, that you can see that the Bible can be much more than interesting. The Bible can be very involving.

Of course the Bible can be interesting simply for the same reasons that a good movie or a good book can be. Some books of the Bible have a lot of action: like the intrigues and battles of the life of David in First and Second Samuel. Some books are adventure stories; like the Book of Acts with its arrests, and trial scenes, and shipwrecks, and snake bites. Those are interesting.

The Gospel of Mathew is interesting because it has the Sermon on the Mount which offers Jesus’ ideas on a radically different way of living. You have got to read that and see how its message applies to you. You will find it very interesting.

But you could also find it interesting if you wanted to teach that it is so radical and so demanding that it cannot apply to us and is not a model for any human life. You could write books and give lectures about this, which would be very interesting.

But Jesus would not be interested in any of those books or lectures. He would never believe you, in spite of all your interest. Jesus would not be interested in your interest.

I love history and the study of ancient civilizations. I love it as a part of my love of knowing lots and lots of stuff. The Bible is chock full of that kind of knowledge. And knowledge is a good and excellent thing, even for its own sake. But for me, if I find the Bible interesting for the sake of knowledge alone, I am in big trouble.

Jesus, and his Father, and the Holy Spirit want this book, called the Bible, to be the place where we find life by meeting the living God in Christ. In meeting the living God, and seeing him revealed, just as he is, we can find our eyes miraculously opened. We can find ourselves miraculously able to see and know ourselves just as we are, and our need for a new life. The Bible shows us the living God offering us a new life through the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Our reading from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John tells us something about this. Jesus told the religious leaders who opposed him that they wanted to be impressed with themselves and not to see themselves just as they really were. That made it impossible for them to really see and know him. ”How can you believe if you accept praise from one another…?” (John 5:44) Jesus said, “I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.” (John 5:42)

They studied and studied the scriptures, yet they hadn’t studied with an interest in what was really important to God, which was a humility deep enough to be aware of their true neediness; and the readiness of God to receive them by grace. “You diligently 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.” (John 5:39-40)

Those who thought they loved God, and thought that their study of the scriptures connected them in fellowship with God were really only interested in their reputation for knowledge. They were not interested in God but only in themselves.

If they had been interested in receiving something that they could never have gotten for themselves, they would have seen that Jesus was the answer. They would have seen Jesus demonstrating the life of God given to needy people a relationship that they could never have gotten for themselves. They would have seen the beauty and the life of God in Jesus, and they would have opened their hearts to real life. And that life in Jesus would have satisfied them for ever.

If the Book of Job is not the oldest written book in the Bible, then the oldest book is a book within a book. It is the little book that the Lord told Moses to write about Joshua and the battle against the desert tribes called the Amalekites.

This little ancient book (which was probably nothing more than the few sentences we have in the seventeenth chapter of Exodus) is, in a sense, a gospel. It shows God’s people winning a battle that was impossible.

They had never been anything but slaves. They had never fought a battle in their lives. The Amalekites were desert raiders who knew how to strategize and how to fight to the death.

The Israelites won a battle they did not know how to fight, and should have been doomed to fail. And, even at that, it wasn’t their fighting that won the battle. It was Moses, who served as a kind of mediator between them and the Lord, praying for them, that won the battle.

The battle started with Moses praying on a hilltop above the battle, holding his staff up over his head in his two hands. The people of Israel were winning. But, when he couldn’t stand it any more, he was forced to lower his arms that held the staff and his people were driven back. Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms with the staff above his head, until the sun went down and the battle was won.

It was Moses holding up the staff in his hands as he prayed that won the battle. The biggest battle was not fought by the armies that clashed in the valley, but by the one man praying on a hilltop.

One of the oldest writings in the Bible was written down to be a simple gift for Joshua. It was important for Joshua to know that there was a book that God had caused to be written for especially for him, in which he could read about his own crisis, and the Lord’s provision for him. It would be Joshua’s special story about a battle that he fought and won because of another man’s battle to pray for him.

This is a gospel story, a good news story, because it is a story about the grace of God that came from the effort and pain of one man who bore that effort and pain for love and the victory of his people. What Moses did on the hilltop, with his hands stretched out upon a staff of wood, was a miniature example of an infinitely greater prayer which is the greatest prayer in the world.

The heart of all true prayer is the offering of your self totally to God in love and trust and desire. The greatest prayer in the world is the prayer of Jesus offering himself in love and trust and desire for us on a cross set on another hilltop; with his hands stretched out upon a staff of wood. It was this prayer that won our ancient battle with sin and death.

The generation that saw Jesus and heard him had in their possession the scriptures that had been inspired to lead them to life. Those scriptures had been inspired to tell them the way to salvation and wholeness. Those scriptures were full of models and examples of the kind of thing that was being fulfilled before their very eyes by Jesus.

But those who opposed or ignored Jesus were interested in other things. They were interested in themselves, and so they were blind.

The Lord’s Supper offers us something like the Bible itself. This is a place to meet the source of life. The bread and the cup represent Jesus. And here he comes in such a simple way, and in a little thing we do at a table with words from the scriptures, and with prayers, and with bread and wine or grape juice that anyone can think is silly or something that has nothing to do with the life of God.

It is a kind of test, just as the humble appearance of Jesus was a kind of test. If we are willing to come, just as we are, to the Lord, just as he is (and just as he chooses to come to us), and if we are interested in that fellowship with all our heart, that is the interest that Jesus desires. That is the interest that will open our hearts to his abundant life and to his everlasting love.


  1. Bible is the only book you hold in your hands and feel a glow and warmness inside you.

    i'm always in too awe of the Book of Genesis.
    thanks for this inspirational piece, Pastor Dennis.
    I feel better now.

    I'm always grateful for your wonderful comments on my blog.
    Thank you so much! It's always good to hear from you.

    Have a great weekend!

  2. Thanks Betty,
    Your blogs are always warm and cheering. I love reading them and seeing your pictures.