This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. The Gospel reading was Luke 4:14-21.
And Happy Stewardship Campaign!
I’m going to keep starting my sermons like this for the next few weeks, as we continue to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary as a congregation this year, and as we continue to move forward through our Stewardship Campaign this month. For these four weeks, we are focusing on our Stewardship, the gifts that God has given us, the gifts God has given us specifically in order that we might share them with others. We’re looking at this through the lens of our anniversary, and specifically through the lens of our anniversary logo.
This logo was designed by a group within our congregation. It shows four aspects of our life together as a community. Four aspects of the life that God has given to us to enjoy, and to share with the world around us, all centered around a cross at the center. Last week, we looked at the top left quadrant.
Today we’re looking at the bottom left. This image one of the good gifts God has shared with us, that we are to share with others. This image is of a book, specifically the Bible, the collection of writings that Christians view as holy scripture.
We view this book differently than we view other books. We view the words of this book as different from other words. But what does that mean? How is this book different? Some Christians have said over the centuries, “It’s different because this book was written by God. These words were given directly to us by God to teach us how to live. Whatever the Bible says is true, literally true, and that’s the end of it.” I could spend some time showing the problems with this understanding of scripture, and in the first draft of this sermon I did. But then I realized that’s not the best use of our time.
Instead of telling you how not to read scripture, let me tell you about a Lutheran understanding of scripture, the way we teach that the Bible can most helpfully be read. It’s informed by today’s gospel reading.
Lutherans teach that scripture is inspired by God, and the word inspire comes directly from the words “in spirit.” We teach that God’s Spirit breathed into all those involved in creating this collection of books, this collection of stories. God’s Spirit breathed into the people who first told the stories, and later into the people who wrote those stories down. God’s Spirit breathed into the people who later determined which of the many stories would be included in the scriptural canon, and into the people who translated that scripture into many other languages. God’s Spirit is still breathing today as new translations are made based on a better understanding of the ancient manuscripts, or on changes to our own language.
God’s Spirit has been a part of the process all along, which doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, but it means that is holy. One way of talking about it is the way Luke shares in the gospel reading today.
Luke tells us that Jesus was in the synagogue in Nazareth, as was his custom on the Sabbath. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll, and found a specific place. He read it to them. It said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll and sat down. And he said to them all, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now what do you suppose that means? Today this scripture has been become real in your hearing. Today this scripture has come alive in your hearing. Perhaps they had just been words before, but in this moment in the synagogue in Nazareth, those words were alive, because the Jesus was there, the power of the Holy Spirit was there in him, the Holy Spirit that had breathed into him just a few verses earlier in his baptism. This scripture was no longer mere words. Jesus stood before them, and the words became the Word of God. Inspired words. In-Spirited words.
There’s another story Luke included in his gospel that tells us something about this too, I think.
Two days after Jesus died, two of his disciples were walking from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. Jesus had been raised, but they didn’t yet know it. In fact, Jesus walked with them, yet they didn’t recognize him. As they walked, Jesus spoke about scripture. He told them the stories they already knew, but he showed them how those stories spoke about him. He showed them that the promises woven in those stories came to fruition through him. We showed them how those stories were really about them, about what they were experiencing in that moment. And then, after breaking bread with them he disappeared. And they said to one another, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us when he opened to us the scriptures?” The word became alive to them.
Scripture is holy not because the words themselves are perfect, or special. But because through these words, the Holy Spirit comes to us. Martin Luther once wrote that the Bible is the manger in which we find the Christ child. That manger isn’t special or holy by itself, but in that manger, in those stories, the power of God comes to us. The words are fulfilled in our hearing. The stories become alive.
And it still happens today. I’ll give you an example from my own life. One passage from scripture that came alive to me when I was seventeen was Romans 8:31-39. I’ll read part of it to you.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That passage came to life for me the first time I was hospitalized for depression. I had attempted suicide a few days earlier, and I was feeling incredibly guilty, lonely, and worthless. Yet there in the hospital I was surrounded by people telling me that I was loved. The nurses and therapists at the hospital told me that I was worthy of love. My friends and family who came to visit me told me that they loved me. And I read this passage in scripture where Paul wrote that he was convinced that nothing in all of creation would be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That passage came to life for me as I realized that Jesus was there with me, not only in these words, but also in the staff and other patients. And in my family and friends. He was there with me, and nothing in all creation could stop him, not even my own depression, not even my own worst feelings.
That passage came to life for me. And while I’ve certainly had moments of doubt many times since then, it’s always stuck with me. That scripture was indeed fulfilled in my hearing that day at the hospital.
I’d like you to try an exercise for me, because I believe that the words of scripture can also come to life for you. Grab a piece of paper and something to write with. Write one thing that you have learned from the Bible. You don’t need to know chapter or verse, or even the correct wording. Just one thing you’ve learned from the Bible.
If you’re not sure what to write, here are some examples.
- “Nothing can stand between me and God’s love.”
- “The Lord is my shepherd.”
- “Jesus died for me.”
- “Jesus loves me,” (because after all, this we know for the Bible tells us so!)
Now, whatever you wrote, hold onto that card all week. Keep it in your pocket, or in your purse, or somewhere near you. And watch. Because I think if you pay attention, you may just see that passage come alive for you this week. You may just experience that scripture being fulfilled right in front of you.