Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, December 10, 2017
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
I AM a typical American male. When I encounter an object that is new to me, I pretend that it’s not a complete mystery to me, but that I find this variety interesting, and so I approach it to investigate and figure it out for myself. I don’t ask anyone what it is. I don’t read the signs. And if I see a booklet here or there that names this thing and describes it, how to use it, where to find the starter button, what warnings must be observed before making the new thing do whatever it is that it does: well, I just leave that booklet right where it is. Reading the manual is for losers. I know what to do, I think. I’ll figure it out.
So we are with the things that really count. We enter life and, rather than read the manual, we stumble around in it, poking at one thing, pulling at another. We fall in love and maybe we get married. Again, we don’t have any idea what we’re doing in this most important relationship we’ll ever have, but do we ask anybody? Nope. We are given the gift and awesome responsibility of children and we must guess that raising them right will be the key to their future and essential to their lasting happiness. But to enter some training exercise to be better fathers or mothers, to have the remotest idea what we’re doing—we often decline to take the time. This can’t be so hard. Everybody does it. Why read the manual?
And so we are with God. We are the people St. Paul describes in the opening of Romans:
“God shows anger from heaven against sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For, ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools.” Romans 1:18-22
Paul shares with us the observation that in simply gazing out of our skulls toward the sky, the wondrous heavens above us, and seeing the order of creation, will show us plainly that God exists and is the creator of a vast, but orderly, universe. And yet, in pride, presumptuously, we start to figure things out for ourselves, too smart and too busy to find out if this God has told us Who He is and what He wants of us.
Is it possible He hasn’t done so? Could we say that the maker of the caterpillar and butterfly, and of people with the facility to learn and use language, is not Himself interested in beauty and essential change, and is not Himself able to speak? If He fashioned our ears, is He not able to hear? If He made our tongues, don’t you think He’s also speaking somewhere, more clearly than a mountain meadow with spring wildflowers, hinting at His loveliness? It’s worth a look to find out.
We have been given The Manual. It’s been written painstakingly and kept safe over millennia for us to read and be enriched by. There are many holy books, that is, writings held sacred by many religions on earth. But this one collection of writings, taken down over 1,600 years of human history, over 40 generations, penned by 40 authors—kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets, shepherds, statesmen and scholars—in wilderness, dungeon and palace, during war and at times of peace, in joy and despair, in Asia, Africa and Europe, and in the common languages of those eras: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek—this sacred library reveals God for all mankind by people who knew Him intimately. Not only is this book about God, many passages are written by Him or spoken into the record by one or another prophet who must write terrible things and marvelous promises.
The Manual is accurate, both historically and theologically. Cross-checking with secular histories, the events recorded in scripture are found to match what is known to have happened. When lack of corroborating facts have ever cast doubt on the Bible, someone always digs up the lost city and artifacts that prove the Bible was right all along. While some folk suspect that its many authors and treatment of subjects contradict one another, a closer study proves that the story is whole, self-supporting and consistent. Over 3,200 prophecies found in its pages have been fulfilled, supporting its claim to authenticity and divine origin. And there are 3,100 prophecies yet to be fulfilled. We still live in biblical times.
As a songwriter, I am encouraged that this most holy book contains 185 songs. And there are 21 dreams recorded as well, dreams where God speaks to someone in their sleep. The baby Jesus was saved by just such a dream.
But the subject of dreams and visions, of wild-haired prophets on the desert, telling us how to live and what his God wants of us may play oddly on the ears of the post-modern human being, the one who doesn’t read manuals. I can figure this out. I don’t have to read some book full of dos and don’ts. Do I?
Paul said that rather than worship God, people made things to worship, the works of their hands. “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself . . . Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, . . . their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. Backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful . . . They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.” Romans 1:25-32
“Nobody ever told me!” is a feeble lie when judgment falls on a human soul that took his precious life and used it as a club or a gun, in this manner that the Apostle Paul describes. We instinctively know a lot of this already and need not be told. But when it comes to using our rational minds, and learning about the God who so obviously laid the deep foundations of our world, we would rather figure it out for ourselves than simply pick up The Manual and read it.
In 640 B.C., Josiah began his reign as king of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to Assyria, its people dispersed, its light extinguished. Josiah was 8 years old. When he had ruled 18 years, he set about to clean up the old Temple of Solomon and set it in order. Workers found a book in the Temple and brought it to Josiah. It was the Covenant, the Bible, the record of Moses. As he read it, the King was cut to the quick. They had forgotten this book and failed to follow its teachings and commands for many years. He had never been told about it. He tore his clothes. Then he read it out to his ministers, and enacted its truth throughout his kingdom, breaking down the idols and shrines, desecrating the places of unholy worship, driving away the purveyors of false religion. For a brief time, his nation enjoyed God’s favor because its people had found the Holy Bible, had read it, and finally followed what it said.
On February 3, 1983, the President of the United States spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.—an event that in later years Giti and I have twice been privileged to attended. And he said this:
“I have a very special old Bible. And alongside a verse in the Second Book of Chronicles there are some words, handwritten, very faded by now. And, believe me, the person who wrote those words was an authority. Her name was Nelle Wilson Reagan. She was my mother. And she wrote about that verse, ‘A most wonderful verse for the healing of the nations.’
“Now, the verse that she’d marked reads: ‘If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven . . . and will heal their land.’ . . .
“Now I would like to sign a proclamation which will make 1983 the Year of the Bible.” Ronald Reagan was the first and last President to make such a proclamation, in that one brief year, chaired by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade. The year was marked with significant events, and it ended at this time of year with President Reagan in a little brick church in Georgetown that was once called Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church, historically a stop on the underground railroad, housing slaves escaped from Virginia that had made it across the Potomac River, but which building now held the Episcopal Heritage Church, Parish of Christ the King. It was our little historic church where Reagan closed his Year of the Bible. In a church converted from its former denomination that had moved away, into a traditional Anglican congregation, the 1983 Year of the Bible was concluded.
The years, and the succession of kings that followed good Josiah were immediately dark again, and finally ended in the Babylonian conquest, the tears of Jeremiah, in his, the longest book in the Bible, watching his country come apart and its people either killed or enslaved.
The days since that Year of the Bible ended have been for us certainly troubled and dark as well. Are we destined to become a pagan nation? Our current President this week simply agrees with Israel that its capitol is Jerusalem, and voices in our press shout it down, while protests burn cities and threaten the peace of children worldwide.
We stand on a knife’s edge, wavering over a precipice, staring at the strange object we have encountered, and we won’t read The Manual.
It’s Bible Sunday, not an entire year, but just one day dedicated in our church every year to the Holy Scriptures, the engrafted word. St. James wrote: “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures . . . Wherefore . . . receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” James 1:18-22
Paul again wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us. The Scriptures give us patience and encouragement so that we can have hope.” Rom 15:4
My prayer for you is that you take it up, read it daily, let its truths become your own. It’s The Manual for living in this strange planet. We are strangers here, and we need the map of this territory. We don’t even know what we are. The entertainment media has no truth to impart about the meaning of existence or the goals of your life. You need to read The Manual.
No other book ever sold so many copies, nor has any other volume succeeded in being saved over so much time.
The words have weight, veracity, and above all other written words, this book is able to read you.
Along with Ronald Reagan, and Robert Sherwood Morse, I endorse and encourage you to read your Bible. The fate of a nation may, once again, depend on its people rediscovering the truth in the inscribed words that are able to save our souls.