Before the mountains were brought forth, or the
land and the earth were born, from age to age
you are God. Psalm 90:2
Because of today’s Collect, today’s special prayer that talks about learning and understanding the holy Scriptures, this Sunday has long been known as “Bible Sunday”. Therefore, I want to see if I can “infect” you this morning with some of the same excitement I feel myself about that bestselling book we call the Bible. Actually, of course, it isn’t a book; it’s a whole library of books: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New, written by a whole lot of people over a thousand years or more. And it’s all about God—God’s nature and character, God’s will and purposes, God’s mighty acts of creation and salvation, from before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born.
Now, to be sure, not every book between the covers of your Bible is as exciting as every other—as my wife and I discovered many years ago when we decided to read the entire Bible together starting at page one! Bad idea! If you start at page one, you’ll likely make it through Genesis and Exodus, which are truly fascinating, but I guarantee that by the time you get to the minute laws of Leviticus, or the endless genealogies of Numbers, you’ll either abandon the project or will be fighting to stay awake! Secondly, remember that the books of the Bible were not written in the order in which you find them; and they were written for different purposes, in different ages, in different circumstances.
Thirdly, the place to start is always the New Testament! Everything in the Bible leads up to the New Testament, the New Covenant, the New Relationship between God and humankind, which is personified with saving power in Jesus Christ our Savior. Christ is none other than the very Word of God, the One in whom is expressed God’s own being. The first few verses of the Gospel according to John say it all: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Remember that bedrock truth when you do read Genesis! When you read those beautiful and imaginative creation stories about the darkness and the light, the waters and the sky, the cattle and the creeping things, the winged birds, the wild animals, and human beings drawn forth from the dust of the ground—when you read and think of the creation, in all its majesty, remember that all of it was and is filled with the glory of Christ! Christians read the whole Bible in the context of Christ!
It’s the same with the patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel; the adventures of Joseph, that spoiled brat with his colorful coat who matured to become a great economist; the-all-too-human Moses who grew up to lead the chosen people of God to their promised land. See through all these mortals the saving hand of the eternal Christ, nurturing, forgiving, encouraging, the Hebrew people as their history unfolds. In the chapters of Joshua and Judges, Samuel and Kings, you’ll encounter a succession of good leaders and bad leaders, great kings like David and evil kings like Ahab (whose wife was even worse!). How very patient God is with us as the centuries go by! Yes, there’s evil; yes, there’s judgment; yes, the Day of the Lord looms, as Zephaniah and the others remind us. But again and again the great prophets envision a future wherein God’s purposes prevail. When you read the Old Testament in the perspective of the New, you see an unmistakable pattern, the pattern of grace!
For the Bible assures us from beginning to end that life is a gift, the whole creation is a gift. The growing faith of the People of God through the centuries is a gift. That’s why the Bible writers from beginning to end talk about God in such exalted terms and describe the world around us with such incomparable beauty and hope. I love Isaiah 35: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;…it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing….Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God….He will come and save you.” Or this, from Jeremiah 31: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people….I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Grace abounds throughout the Bible, and you see it when you read it through New Testament eyes. Jesus himself, of course, was steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures and he saw his own ministry foreshadowed in them. When he returned to his hometown of Nazareth and stood up to read to the congregation, Luke says that he chose this famous passage from Isaiah 61: “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.” (Luke 4:18-19) Jesus himself will die on the cross for that radical grace of God. Grace is what the Bible is all about!
Furthermore, the Bible challenges all of us who read it to follow in the way of grace, the way of the cross. The Book of Acts tells the story of how the earliest Christians experienced that kind of love and embraced it in their lives. It reads like an adventure story. Saul of Tarsus, that persecutor of Christians, stands by and watches the young deacon Stephen actually praying for the men who are stoning him to death. And that gets to Saul. Finally he can hold out no longer against that kind of love, and his life is transformed. He becomes Paul the Apostle who tells everyone he can find about the radical grace of God in Christ. The Bible presents a challenge to all of us who read it through the mind and heart of Jesus: Every one of the four gospel writers ends his book with Jesus’ challenge to go forth and witness to the Gospel. Matthew is the one most quoted: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
I am truly excited about the Bible, and I want you to be too. (That’s one of the reasons I carry on a perhaps quaint tradition of quoting directly from my own Bible when I preach!) I wish every one of you could be in one of the Bible study groups here at St. James’s. There’s no better way to discover and share the power of Scripture. But at least read it on your own! And don’t start at page one! First read one of the Gospels. You can read Mark in one sitting! Or, read the two-volume work of Luke and Acts (same author), the gospel and the adventures of the early church. And of course read some of Paul’s letters. Romans 5 through 8 expresses the heart of the Gospel. Colossians 1 will remind you of John’s vision of the eternal Christ who holds all things together.
Then, when you have the New Testament perspective under your belt, do some Old Testament reading. Chip away at Genesis through 2nd Kings to trace the gathering, guiding and maturing of the people of God. Read Ezra and Nehemiah to see how they rebuilt their country after the Exile. Read Job about the mystery of evil. Let the Psalms speak deeply to your heart about God’s love and care. Memorize some of them, like the 23rd about the Good Shepherd, or the 103rd about God’s forgiveness and goodness. Get to know the great prophets, including some of the lesser-known ones—like Micah the prophet of peace who in those famous words envisions God prompting the people to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Above all, remember that the Bible is first, last and always about God! Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age without end, the Bible declares that God is the everlasting One who loves you, who understands you, who hurts with you, who dies for you, who forgives you, who makes life new for you and will never, ever, abandon you!