How to Read and Study the Bible (1)

Today’s sermon is the first in a little mini-series on “How to Read and Study the Bible.

1. We learn to read Scripture in stages. The first stage is passive. Our parents read to us; our grandparents tell us stories.

One of the first “Bible stories” I remember my mother reading to me was not in the Bible at all, but it is rooted in the Bible. It is called “The Littlest Angel.” Written by Charles Tazewell, and first released in 1946, it has become one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. With apologies to Charles Tazewell, the story went something like this. The Littlest Angel was just over four years, six months and five days old, when he presented himself at Heaven’s Gate. He missed home. He was unimpressed with the glories of heaven, and he had forgotten his handkerchief. He snuffeled to hide his tears, and his snuffling caused the Gatekeeper to blot his page for the first time ever. The Littlest Angel soon disrupted the peace of heaven. His halo was tarnished. His chubby hands were always dirty. He whistled at all hours, and it disturbed the prophets and patriarchs. He sang off key. He didn’t even know how to use his wings. Finally, an understanding Angel spoke to him, and asked how he could help. The littlest Angel said that he thought he can get by if only he had with him a small box he used to keep under his bed. A swift angel was dispatched, and the box retrieved. The change in The Littlest Angel was remarkable. His sighs turned into song. He started to learn to properly do all the things that angels have to do. Then the Birth of the Savior was announced. And all the angles made ready their gifts. The Littlest Angel wanted to give a gift, too. At first he thought he might give a song, but he was still learning to sing, and composing a song was beyond his limited ability. Then he thought about giving him a prayer, but he thought his prayers not beautiful enough. So he gave the best he had; he gave his old box. Then, when he saw it there among the splendid gifts of the other angels, he regretted his choice. He worried that God would think his gift unworthy. His old box contained nothing more the wings of a butterfly he found on a grassy hillside on a warm summer day, and two smooth white stones he had taken from a creek, and the collar that had once been worn by an old dog he had loved and lost. He was afraid that he might even be guilty of blasphemy, then the Voice of God spoke saying:

“Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that this small box pleases me most. It’s contents are of the Earth and of men, and My Son is born to be King of both. These are the things that my Son, too, will know and love and cherish…. I accept this gift in the Name of the Child, Jesus, born of Mary this night in Bethlehem.”

There was a breathless pause, and then the rough box given by the Littlest Angel began to glow with a bright, unearthly light, then the light became a lustrous flame, and the flame became a radiant brilliance that blinded the eyes of all the angels! And it rose and rose until its splendor shown on all the earth, the Shinning Star of Bethlehem.

Now that story is not in the Bible, and some of the details in that story are most certainly not in the Bible, but it is rooted in the the Bible and the Bible is in, around and through it. For it proclaims Christ, and every young child who hears it read, and every parent who reads it, can’t help but admire the Littlest Angel and think about what he or she might give for God to use.

People frequently ask, “What stories from the Bible should I tell my children?”
I do not worry about telling children stories about the Bible like The Littlest Angel, that blend scripture and what we might call “dedicated fiction.” As they grow they will be able to sort out the two, and we can help them with that task.

There are some Bible stories that young children may not need to hear. I would not put a child to bed with stories of the Great Red Dragon, or the Beast of Revelation. I was frightened enough of the prayer my mother taught me. You remember it:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die (die! Die! DIE!) before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The intent of the prayer is honest and good, but God intended that children enjoy a time of life when they do not have to think about mortality, and I would not want to take that time of innocence away too quickly. They will have to give up the myth of their immortality soon enough, and they should, especially before they start riding in cars with their friends and driving themselves. I would rather tell small children the hopeful stories of scripture than the hard stories of scripture.

For instance, Isaiah foretold a time, still in the future, when:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and lion and the (calf) together, and a little child will lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Many of the most important stories in the Bible were either written for children, or for the human race still in its adolescence.

Take for example, the gospel of St. John. I know it is filled with some of the most sophisticated and wonderful theology in the New Testament. It talks about Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” It proclaims his death as his most glorious achievement. It says that even though we are sinners, when we trust Jesus with our lives, we pass out of God’s judgment into Eternal Life. And it says that Eternal Life is not just about the quantity of life, but also about the quality of life, and that Eternal Life, as a quality of life, begins, not just after death, but right now. I know the theology of the gospel is pretty sophisticated. Yet, if one reads it in the original language, it is written so simply, and so beautifully, that it makes the language of the rest of the New Testament seem unnecessarily complicated and hard to read. Years ago, my professor of New Testament, Dr. Robert Lyon, closed the door and suggested to us that he though that John was written with children in mind. It was like he was almost afraid to admit it. Yet, I adopted his thinking, and just this fall, I heard a professor of New Testament from the Divinity School at Wake Forest say that she, too, thinks the 4th Gospel was written for children. That really should not surprise us. Adults are often concerned with secondary questions: What should I wear? What should I eat? How can I earn a living? Children are concerned with primary questions: Where have I come from? Where am I going? What is the real purpose of my life while I am here? Maybe that is why Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn, and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 18:3)

Do you remember the old Art Linkletter show, “People Are Funny?” Art Linkletter once asked a panel of children what God was like. One answered, “God is an old man who sits up in heaven and drinks all the Dr. Pepper he wants.” The 4th Gospel provides Children with a better answer. John tells us that God is like the Man Jesus. And Jesus is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep. He is the light of the world, so that we do not have to walk in darkness. He is the way back to God, and to the Father’s house. He is gentle and good, and brave. He loved his enemies and wanted the best for them, even though they hated him, and he loved his friends so much that he sacrificed his life for them, and for us, for he invites us to be his friend.

Children are impressionable. They hear and remember things that adults do not. We must not miss that window of opportunity.

Do you remember how Spinoza said, “Give me a child until he is 7 years old, and I do not care who has him afterward?” He meant that the child’s character, and the trajectory of the child’s life is fixed at that early age. The man we know as “Solomon,” knew what Spinoza was talking about. He wrote: “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).

2. The second stage of learning to read scripture is marked out by the first stage of our participation in the community of faith.

Children watch hours and hours of television every week, wherein they often get the wrong message. Children need the few hours each week of Sunday school, and Bible school, and New Phillies, to learn what is important. This is not burdensome. When I heard Andie and Tarra tell about New Phillies it made me wish I were a pre-teen in our church.

Let’s see how old some of you are. How many of you remember the flannelgraph? It is still around, and I was surprised to learn that the flannelgraph has earned its own entry on Wikipedia. It reads:

The Flannel-graph is a storytelling system that uses a board covered with flannel fabric, usually resting on an easel. The felt is usually painted to depict a background scene appropriate to the story being told. Paper cutouts of characters and objects in the story are backed with something to make them sticky, then placed on the the flannel-graph, and moved around, as the story unfolds.

When I was a boy, flannel-graphs were every bit as common in Moravian Churches as mimeograph machines—(do you remember those?), and water melon feasts in summer (This was in the days before air conditioning). I have never used a flannel graph, but I have seen lots of them used.

One of my favorite flannel graph stories—indeed, one of my favorite Bible stories is the story of “The Prodigal Son,” that Jesus himself told. It features two brothers, or at least the younger brother, and a father, and a house, and some servants, and a fatted calf, and “a far country,” separated from the father’s house by a river. In the story, the boy asks his father for his inheritance, and then crosses the river into the far country, and wastes his money on riotous living. I was never sure what riotous living was, and there were no flannel graph figures to represent it, but I was pretty sure it was fun, but only for a while. For when the prodigal went broke he had to go live with the pigs. Then one morning he was feeding the pigs, and he himself was hungry, and he remembered who he was, and where he had come from, and how nice it was to live in his father’s house. So, he decided to go back home to tell his father how sorry he was, that he had disobeyed God and dishonored him. Saying he was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son, he was going to ask to move in with the hired servants. But his father had been waiting for him. And when he saw him, off in a distance, the father ran to him. And the father called his for his servants. And he told them to bring the best robe and put it on him, and to bring a ring for his finger, and shoes for his feet, and he told them to lay out a feast, because,”My son, who has been dead is alive again.”

I believe that a picture is a worth a thousand words. Teilhard de Chardin the great Catholic philosopher, scientist, and priest used to teach people to think in pictures. He said that some of our best thinkers already did. Way back long before the IBM-PC became popular, IBM used to teach its executives to give speeches using a single sheet of typing paper on which they had drawn pictures representing the points of their speech. Jesus taught in parables like the Prodigal Son because most of us who hear a story see it happening in our heads, even without the benefit of a flannel graph.

Do you know that for sixteen centuries, the Catholic Church was really the only church that there was, and its services were all conducted in Latin, and continued to be until Vatican II in 1964. And, though Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, the Bible was published mostly in Latin until after the Protestant Reformation. Luther started the Protestant Reformation in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Then the Moravians were the first to translate the Bible into the language of the people, and that work was not published until 1593. (Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439.) The King James Bible was not published until 1611. So, for almost sixteen centuries, people relied upon the shape of their churches, and the art they contained, to help them remember the stories from the Bible.

Pictures are still important. Not long ago a friend introduced me to a book by Henri Nouwen, the well known Christian author. It is entitled “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.” The whole book is about the painting, “The Return of the Prodigal,” painted just two years before his death in 1669 by Rembrandt. It is a wonderful book, filled with faith and devotion from cover to cover, but nothing in it is better than Nouwen’s reaction when he first saw Rembrandt’s painting, in the form of a poster, in a religious community he was visiting. He wrote:

(One day I went to visit a friend). As we spoke my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak, tenderly touching the shoulders of a disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away. I felt drawn by the intimacy between the two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light that engulfed them both. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands, as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place that I had never been reached before.

If a picture, or a story, or a picture-story, like a parable, touches us in a place where we have never been touched before, then we never, ever forget it. It becomes a part of our lives. It changes our lives.

One of the pictures that changed the life of many a child who grew up in Christian homes in the 1950’s was entitled, “The Pilot.” I had one, and so did several of my friends. I think some church must have distributed them. It showed a young man with black wavy hair, with a curl in the middle of his forehead, and blue piercing eyes. He wore a bright red shirt, and you could see his muscles underneath, and he stood on the deck of a ship, with the ship’s wheel balanced carefully in his hands. He was the young man every young boy wanted to grow up to be, and the boy every young girl wanted to grow up to meet. In the picture, the Young Man is surrounded by dark and angry skies, and one knows instinctively that the small ship is being tossed by the sea and the wave. Yet the boy’s face is without fear, for one stands behind him, and that one lays one of his hands upon the boy’s shoulder, and with the other hand, he points the way for the boy to steer his craft through the storm to a safe haven. (Shades of Psalm 139:9-10) The identity of the one who points the way is clear, it is Jesus Christ.

That pictures has never been far out of my mind. It is a source of comfort and challenge.

Long before we can can read the Bible for ourselves, given the right opportunity, we begin to absorb the message of the Bible from the stories we are told, and the pictures we see, and none is more important than story of our life together, and the picture of the Christian life that our parents, and grandparents, and neighbors, show us, daily.

Those of us who are fortunate, remember saying grace at the supper table. We remember hearing a member of the family read to us from the Scripture, or perhaps from the “Daily Text,” or “The Upper Room.” We remember hearing the Christmas Story at the Lovefeast, as we enjoyed “coffee” for the first, leaning into the good smell that came to us as we leaned into the arm of our mothers, or fathers. We remember getting up on Sunday, knowing that were going to church, with no arguments allowed even if we had a book report due on Monday, and that we had not even started to read, “A Tale of Two Cities,” even though it had been assigned more than a month ago.

Daniel Day Lewis recently won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. The movie, “Lincoln,” was amazing, but it just scratched the surface of one of our greatest presidents. Lincoln said many memorable things, and the movie included some, but not all. One of Lincoln’s most famous sayings was not in the movie, but it could serve as a guide for parents who want to paint the right picture for their children. Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” We parents and grandparents may fool our children, and grandchildren, some of the time, but we can’t fool them all of the time. If we want them to live a life of faith after they leave our homes, we must be very careful of the picture of faith that we are painting for them and the story of discipleship that we are writing for them while they are still in our homes, and, of course, still in our churches. Children are not nearly as concerned with what we say, as with what we do. That is a picture, and a story.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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