Today we celebrate the end of the year. Today marks the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our Biblical Cycle. Next week we will begin with the first Sunday of Advent, a new year. Today as we wrap up our cycle of scripture, I want to consider our relationship with the Bible. Many Christians boldly claim the title “Literalist” in their approach to scripture. Most of you know, I am not one of their number.
For example: I don’t believe that the writers of the Hebrew Bible were attempting to give a counter-argument to evolution. The Book of Genesis was never meant to give a geological date for the Earth. The questions of our scientific world are not the questions held by the people who developed the Scriptures. It is fruitless to try to argue against science with the Bible.
But that doesn’t mean means we should lay the Bible aside. The writers of Scripture held important questions, theological questions. The writers of the first chapter of Genesis included a refrain to their creation account. We read that “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and God created light and “saw that the light was good.” God separated the waters from the sky, the dry land from the sea, and “God saw that it was good.” God put forth vegetation, “And God saw that it was good.” God created the sun and the stars and “saw that it was good.” God created living creatures, “And saw that it was good.” God finally created humankind in God’s own image, and God looked on all that was created and saw, “indeed, it was very good.” Good, Good, very good.
Most scholars now believe that this story was written during the Babylonian exile. The people of Israel were living in a strange land, and hearing strange stories about the creation. Babylonians believed that life on earth was an accident, caused by warring and capricious Gods. Human beings were a side-show to the more interesting melodramas of the heavens. The gods liked to mess with people by sending floods and famines. The refugee people of God begged to differ. “No, God intended our creation,” they said. God saw that we were good, even us refugees. The earth is good. The sky is good. The people are very good. God intends us, delights in us, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Today, when the world can still seem a little capricious, especially to refugees. Famines and floods are still commonplace, and still today the Scripture tells us that God created us on purpose, and cares for us. That is very very good.
The Bible wasn’t written to contend with today’s science, but there are deep truths in Scripture. The Bible also wasn’t written in for our so-called culture war. We have to face that gender inequality, homophobia, and slavery are commonplace in our Scripture. That doesn’t mean they should be commonplace in our world today. One of the best guidelines I have heard for Scripture comes from a bumper sticker: The Bible is not a book of directions (plural), but a Book of Direction (singular).
We may not find exact data for our modern quandaries, but if we read the overall arc of the Bible, we can hear the deep rhythm of Scripture that still rings true: God creates us, God loves us, God yearns for us to be free to love God and one another.
You all know, I read a lot of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s writings. Tutu likes to tell a joke about the missionaries who converted his people to Christianity:
“When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
But, he says, don’t underestimate the power of the Bible. He said, it is impossible to imagine what it would have been like for the black community during apartheid without the Bible. The Bible was the story they returned to for hope, for direction. Using the Bible, they came to the governing regime again and again and said, “let my people go.” Don’t underestimate the power of Scripture.
Today, as we come to the end of our cycle of readings, I invite you to consider your own relationship with Scripture. Maybe you’re like me, and you’re not a literalist. Maybe for you parts of the Bible aren’t asking the same question as science or history textbooks. Maybe you need some footnotes to explain the Biblical moral code. But can you still hold scripture with reverence? Can you still let these ancient stories inspire you, breathe life into you, as you work for justice? I have a sense in the years ahead, we’re going to need this Bible.