Living with the Hard Texts of Scripture

This sermon is one of a series that is still developing. My purpose is not to put the Bible down, but to establish Jesus Christ as the standard by which Moravians interpret and understand all scripture. I find I cannot say all that I want to say in each sermon. I will try to say all that I need to say in the series. It may help the reader to know that I believe that the Bible is infallible, in the sense that it will accomplish all that God purposes for it to do. I also believe that the Bible that we have is the Bible that God intends us to have. (Isaiah 55:10) I say that knowing that there are thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament alone, and more variations in those manuscripts than there are words in the text. It is my conviction that even this variety of texts has meaning for us. Likewise, I believe that even the hard text of scripture, those that are absolutely contrary to what we know of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, have valuable lessons to teach us. For instance, in Psalm 137:9 we read, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.”The Psalmist is referring to the children of the Babylonians who have destroyed the children of his own people. This does not mean that we will be happy when we destroy the children of our enemies. It does mean that God understands the cries of the human heart even when they are unworthy!

Many of us are in the habit of overlooking the hard texts of scripture, as we might overlook occasional episodes of bad behavior in a normally well behaved child. We are so confident in the everyday goodness of the Bible, that we forgive those texts that seem somehow contrary to the whole without giving them too much thought.

Those who have yet to settle the issue of faith and discipleship are less forgiving. Let me see if I can illustrate.

I remember a Sunday at my last church when the wife of a good friend got up and walked out of the sanctuary while I was reading the Old Testament lesson. The text that offended her was from Genesis 22. It told the story of how God tested Abraham’s devotion. At God’s direction, Abraham took his son Isaac up a mountain in the land of Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham bound the boy, and laid him upon a makeshift altar. He took his knife in his hand and was preparing to strike when, at the last possible moment, the angel of the LORD stayed Abraham’s hand, and he looked up to see a ram caught in a thicket. Abraham had obeyed God, holding nothing back, not even his son, and God had provided the sacrifice.

Devout Jews and Christians hear the story of Abraham and Isaac and we pay tribute to the faith of the man we know as “the father of all who have faith.” My friend’s wife heard the same story, and she had just given birth to her first son, and she thought of him, and she was aghast that God would put a parent like herself to such a test.

I knew immediately why she had walked out, and later that week I met with her. I tried to explain to her that, in the context of the Ancient Israel, the story of Abraham and Isaac was not just a story about how God tested the devotion of Abraham, but it was also a story about how the LORD God of Israel did not require child sacrifice.

That may not seem so very important to those of us who have lived in 20th and 21st century America, but it was exceedingly important to the ancient Jews. Jewish parents often lived in the same vicinity with those who worshiped other gods like Molech, who did require child sacrifice. Molech was a larger than life-sized idol often fashioned of bronze. He had the head of a bull, or a cow, and the body of a man. His arms were extended and joined so that they could temporarily bear the weight of a child. Molech stood over a fire, and his arms were heated red hot, and a child was placed in them by the child’s mother, or father, and the child was immediately burned, and for a few seconds the child screamed and fought against the pain, and then the child dropped into the flames that burned at the idol’s feet to die, quickly, we hope. I told my friend’s wife that Molech made the God of Abraham seem about as threatening as a glass of warm milk at bed time, but the damage was done, and though he remains a friend, and she remains one of the best people I have ever known, she never did come back to church.

Some hard texts of the Bible are easy to explain—at least to believers. Others require more effort. Take the text from Leviticus 21 that is before us this morning. Therein Moses tells Aaron that when considering his descendants for service at the altar in the Tabernacle, only the cream of the crop will be good enough. Moses told Aaron that no man could serve as a priest who had a blemish, or a mutilated face, or a limb that was too long, or too short, or who was blind, or lame, or who had a hunchback, or crushed testicles, or who was a dwarf, or who had an itching disease, or scabs. This text seems to suggest that the prophet of God we know as Moses could have used a little sensitivity training. Both the government of the United States, and the government of the Great State of North Carolina have made provisions for people with disabilities to have ingress and egress to our public buildings, and the people who planned and built New Philadelphia have tried to make it easy for people in wheel chairs to get in and out of our sanctuary, and fellowship hall. And I cannot imagine that you would overlook the opportunity to call a well qualified pastor because he, or she, had a limp, or had impaired vision. Does that make us somehow superior to the prophet of God, Moses?

To even begin to explain this text (and others like it) to people like the wife of my friend, we must once more look closely into the historical circumstances of the time in which it was written. At the very least, this text is a guarantee that children who were born into the community of ancient Israel, who were less than “perfect,” were not killed at birth, but were allowed to grow-up, and continue to be a part of the community. They could even share the meal from the altar, they just could not serve there. To our modern sensibilities this may seem an unworthy compromise, and no doubt it is; but it was a huge step forward over the practices of the peoples that surrounded ancient Israel. Ordinarily, perfect children were offered to Molech! If a child was less than perfect, and often, the only acceptable perfection was the perfection of being a male child, then the child was often taken into the wilderness and exposed to the elements, and left to die, or else they were tossed over a cliff to die in a trash heap at the bottom of a gully.

Of course, this explanation is weak tea for many people like the wife of my friend, and I would suggest a stronger brew. I have told you before that God’s revelation of himself is progressive. God’s revelation of himself in Nature is progressive, or at least, progressively understood. We know more about natural world than did any of the human authors of the Bible. .King David looked at the heavens with his naked eye, and saw tens of thousands of stars, and he said, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” We look at the heavens through powerful telescopes born millions of miles beyond the earth by satellites, and we see billions of stars, and we know that, “the heavens are telling the glory of God, AND HOW!!!” Likewise, the Special Revelation of the Bible is progressive, and progressively understood. Moses knew more about he Law than Abraham, because Abraham lived before the Law was given. The prophets who spoke of the coming of the Messiah, including John the Baptist, glimpsed the glory of God, but they did not see it with the same clarity as the disciples who beheld the glory of the LORD in the face of Christ Jesus, risen from the dead. The progressive nature of Special Revelation means that God was not content with speaking the word though his prophets, priests and kings, like Moses, Isaiah, and David. Nor was God content with writing down the word in the Law and the Prophets. God ultimately had to fix the Word, and let it live in the person of Jesus Christ. A picture is worth 1,000 words; and the value of a living Word is incalculable. That is what St. John is getting at when he wrote:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That is what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was getting at when he wrote:

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him (did you get that “before him!”) no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Hebrews 4:12

If you want to see what God is really like, you cannot be content with Leviticus 21, you have got to read the rest of Scripture, particularly the gospels. You have got to see for yourself how Jesus reached out to the poor, and the lame, and the blind, and the deaf, and the leper, and restored them to their families and communities, even before he healed them. It is interesting that one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, predicted that the Messiah himself, whom we know to be Jesus, “had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2 RSV)There are other texts that need be to considered also. In 1st Corinthians 12:20-22 St. Paul considered those who belong to Christ’s body the church. Infused with the Spirit of Jesus, Paul takes an approach completely opposite that suggested by Moses to Aaron in Leviticus 21. The apostle writes:

20 …there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable.

In case you doubt the relevance of this passage, in 2nd Corinthians 12 Paul talks about his own weakness. He says that to keep him being too elated by the abundance of revelations he had received from the Lord, he was given a thorn in the flesh. Some scholars think this thorn in the flesh was weak eyesight. Others think it was epilepsy, which was common among the Caesars, too. There have been many suggestions. It matters not; what matters is how Paul bore his weakness. He says that, three times, he asked the LORD to take it away; and three times he received the same answer: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul said, “I will all the more boast in my weakness, so that the power of Christ might rest upon me.”

How many times have you known someone who suffered some terrible illness, or disadvantage, who yet rose to be one of the most remarkable and effective people you have ever known? Samuel Logan Bengal, the founder of the Salvation Army was told he was going blind. He said, “I have served God with my sight, I will serve God with my blindness.” Fanny Crosby wrote hundreds of gospel songs. Who knows whether she would have written so much and so well had she not been blind? And who knows whether Stephen Hawking would have been the scientist he has been apart from his battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease? And who knows whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have been the great president that he was if he had not suffered with Polio? The Bible seems to be on the side of the underdog. The book of Judges tells us Gideon was chosen to be a Judge over Israel because he belonged to the least family of the least clan in the least tribe in Israel. God alone made Gideon a mighty man of valor. God anointed Saul as the first king of Israel because he looked like a king, he stood a head taller than any other man in Israel; but Saul was a colossal failure. When Samuel anointed David king over Israel in Saul’s stead, he was the least of Jesse’s sons, and the one who looked least like a king. David was certainly the underdog when he went out against Goliath of Gath, the champion of the Philistines.

God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. No where is that any more obvious than in the person of Jesus the Messiah himself. The Jews wanted a conquering king. They wanted a Messiah who would rout the Romans, and drive them from Jerusalem, and from the Holy Land, and rule the nations with a rod of iron. Jesus was the Messiah Israel waited for; but not the Messiah they expected. Jesus said that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus was rejected by the majority of the people who waited for him, given a mockery of a trial by the Romans, and crucified between two common criminals. Yet, the cross of Jesus has become the single most remarkable and powerful symbol in the history of the world, a symbol not of failure but of victory. When we look back at the cross we do not see the bad end of a good man, we see a road traveled once for all by a now risen and victorious Savior. It has often been said that the Risen Christ trampled the cross under his feet. There is a senses in which he did, but a sense in which he did not. There is a sense in which Jesus still rules from that cross, the most winsome and attractive revelation of God in the history of our planet. From the cross Jesus stretches out his arms to welcome all those who are conscious of their need for a Savior, and it matters not if we are down and out or up and coming, it matters only that we know we need him..

Let me sum up with a story. Some years ago I was participating in a dialogue between the Moravian Church and various reformed denominations. They style themselves “Sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture Alone,” and they try to fit the Bible into a single system of doctrine. We Moravians style ourselves, “Christ Centered,” and, in The Ground of the Unity, we confess that we do not look for a single system of doctrine in the Bible. One day, after lunch, a representative of one of the Reformed Churches brought in a copy of a new book by Bishop Spong that dealt with the hard texts of scripture, like some of those I have mentioned this morning. The book was a best seller, and he assumed our familiarity with it. He said, “How would you Moravians deal with these texts?” Herman Weinlick and I put our heads together for a brief moment, then we answered. We said, “Well, we would simply say that some texts of Scripture are pre-Christ and some texts of scripture are sub-Christ, they don’t measure up to the fullness of the Revelation of God that we see in Him.” Without exception, very head in the room nodded their affirmation, and many faces expressed an envy at the simplicity with which we Moravians could sweep aside what for them was a huge theological debate. Now here is the kicker. Herman and I were perhaps the most conservative people in the room, yet since we belonged to a church that had always made Christ central, and everything else, even the Bible, secondary or ministerial, we could deal with the hard texts of scripture with a simplicity that other children of the Protestant Reformation could only envy. Now some people will be troubled by our Moravian simplicity. I would point out that we are not completely alone. Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, maintained that the Scripture was inspired in direct proportion that it preached Christ. Where people are devalued, and Christ ignored; he questioned inspiration; where Christ is preached as crucified, and Risen, that is where people were lifted-up, as Christ himself lifted us up, he thought inspiration was doubly potent. Let me give you an even more remarkable example. In 1963 the Southern Baptist convention adopted the standard that the Bible was the Word of God, with one proviso: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted in Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, in the 1970’s, when the literalists took over that denomination, they dropped this criterion from the confession. Though I value my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, I see this commission as just one more reason why God needs a little denomination like the Moravian Church. We may be the least of the least, but God has given us a message about Jesus Christ, and his role among us, and his role regarding scripture, that is more needed in the critical and sophisticated world of today than ever before.

Finis

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

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