For many years I have made it a personal devotional practice to read through the Bible each year, beginning with the creation stories in Genesis on January 1 and finishing with the poetic description of a restored universe in Revelation on December 31. Although I’ve tried other reading schedules, this is the one that has worked best for me. If I get behind and miss a day or two, it’s easier to play catch-up. Since I don’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, I try to use a different translation each year. The invention of apps like YouVersion allow easy switching between translations, which has broadened my choices considerably. This year I’m using The Bible Project for my daily readings, which includes a video element.
Over time, the results of this practice have resulted in the Bible truly becoming a living, breathing book for me. Each time I read it, I find it has something new to say to me, which often speaks to me at the point of my deepest need of the moment. It may be something I find relevant or applicable to something that is going on in my personal life, or something that is going on in the world around me. This phenomenon is not limited to the time I spend actually reading the scripture passage for the day, or even the selected passages. I can be going about my ordinary activities of the day and find that a verse pops into my head that offers assurance or direction, and I understand this as God speaking to me.
Reading the Bible from start to finish multiple times also helps me to see connections between different parts of the Bible. The scriptures that make up our Bible were written by many different people over thousands of years, each bearing the stamp of the writer’s individual perspective in time and space, yet also attempting to communicate a consistent message. Keeping that message in mind helps me better understand the weird parts…and there are some weird parts. It’s a mistake to construct an entire theology based on a few passages taken out of context (including their historical and cultural context) especially when other passages may say something completely different.
So what is the consistent message of the Bible? Here’s how I understand it: There is a God, and it’s not us. In fact, we humans consistently fall far short of God’s design for us and mess things up when we try to assume the role of God. We can’t even manage to follow one simple rule which is supposed to govern our interaction with others: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Yet God has never given up on his creation, and God never will, until all is as God intended it to be.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-15
Let’s play a little word association game. When you hear the word “God” what is the first word that comes to your mind? If you ask different people, you will get many different responses, because God is complicated. How we understand God depends an awful lot on our own experiences. It’s like the story about the blind men and the elephant. The one who touched the trunk thought it was like a snake, the one who touched the tusk thought it was like a spear, the one who touched a leg thought it was like a tree, and so forth. Due to their visual limitations and the size of the elephant, they could not see the whole elephant at once, and each came to a limited understanding of what an elephant is like.
The Bible uses a lot of different metaphors to try and explain God. God is often compared to a father, and that’s the term Jesus used when he taught his disciples to pray. But God is also compared to a woman in labor and a nursing mother. God is called King of Kings and Mighty Warrior, but God is also described as a shepherd, a gardener, and a potter.
All these, and more, are true at the same time, and none of them gives a complete picture of God. Metaphors can only go so far in describing the indescribable. If you fixate on certain ones and exclude the others, if you try to take the metaphorical literally, or if you rely too much on your own understanding of them, you will have at best an incomplete and at worst a harmful understanding of God. In other words, you will have bad theology, and theology matters.
Bad theology often leads to bad actions as people desperately try to please not the real God, but the god of their imaginations. Often that is a scary picture, what my atheist friends like to disparage as “an angry sky god” ready to dish out the lightening bolts whenever we step out of line. And as Yoda has said, fear is the path to the dark side.
History is replete with examples of this. If you believe that God hates all those who worship differently, you wind up with Charlemagne forcing conversions at the point of a sword, and the Crusades. If you believe that God hates heresy, you wind up with the Spanish Inquisition, and the bloody Catholic/Protestant internecine warfare that swept through Europe. If you believe that God cursed some races to perpetually serve other races, you wind up with centuries of enslaved black Americans. If you believe God rejected the Jews because they rejected Christ, you wind up with pogroms and the Holocaust and that young man who went into a synagogue and started shooting people as they prayed. No, we can’t ignore bad theology.
I think the concept of God as Trinity is a helpful way to combat our human tendency to limit God in ways that fester into bad theology. God is one, yet God is also three. If that makes your head hurt, that’s because it is a paradox that helps get us out of our boxes of binary thinking. God is our Father, the creator and sustainer of the universe, but God is also the Son, the God who became human in the person of Jesus, and God is also the Holy Spirit, the God who is within us and permeates all living things. God is all of these things at the same time. Here are a couple more metaphors: Like a fidget spinner in motion, we can’t focus on one to the exclusion of the others. They are not all the same, but they all work together to accomplish the purposes of God. Like the Three Musketeers, “All for one, and one for all”.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love Jesus showed us, the kind of love God has for us, takes a lifetime to even begin to learn. And the way that we learn it is by listening to the Holy Spirit, that voice of God’s truth that lives within us, and is continually pulsing with the drumbeat of God’s love.
Here’s the kicker: The Holy Spirit didn’t stop guiding us into truth at the conclusion of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is still working on that, and God is still speaking to those who have ears to listen, and to learn. We’re still learning about God, and how God wants us to apply that love in a world that desperately needs it.
There is a great deal of symbolism in this 15th century artist’s depiction of Trinity. What’s most interesting about it to me is the little square between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit’s feet, which has been found to contain glue residue. Some art historians believe that the square once held a mirror. Do you see the symbolism there? God is inviting the observer to the table of fellowship. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter how you identify yourself, YOU are welcome here.
(I got the idea for the liturgy of welcome I used in church from here, and adapted it to fit our congregation.)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3
After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone, and our children sift thru all we’ve left behind, may the clues that they discover, and the mem’ries they uncover, become the light that leads them to the road we each must find. -from “Find Us Faithful, by Steve Green, inspired by the Hebrews passage
In the past few weeks I’ve attended three memorial services, all for people who lived long lives of service to God and their fellow human beings. All three services were held in United Methodist churches, which is my adopted denominational affiliation, at least for now. All three services were packed with people who couldn’t seem to stop talking about the positive influence of their departed loved ones. Some stories that were shared were funny, some were inspiring, and some revealed things about the person I hadn’t previously known. These were people that made a difference in the lives of those around them, and they did so for decades. They persevered. They did not lose heart, or grow weary in doing good to others. They were faithful. I imagine them now, along with others I have known, as part of that great heavenly cloud of witnesses to the power of lives transformed by Christ.
At the end of life, what is it that causes a person to be remembered in a positive way, like these three people who have recently “transferred their membership” from a congregation on earth to one in heaven? The stories I heard at the memorial services were less about the person’s doctrinal beliefs than about what the person did, and how that impacted others. As the writer of the book of James puts it, faith is best shown by means of loving actions. “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” Being “found faithful” isn’t a matter of getting all your doctrinal ducks in a row, which is good thing considering how many variations on that theme there are. “Trusting Jesus” isn’t a one-and-done event. It is a lifelong commitment that results in the continuing transformation of a person to think and act more and more like Jesus as the years go by. That commitment was clearly seen in the lives of these three people.
As Madeline l’Engle has written, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” There’s also a quote attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The gospel in a word is love, the love God has for us, and the love we show to others. We each must find our own road that leads to loving God and others. And I think that, at the end of life, whether or not we will be “found faithful” in the eyes of God or humans will be based on how we treat those around us.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” -Luke 3:21-22
In the Western church, Epiphany is associated with the coming of the Wise Men to visit baby Jesus, but in the Eastern church, Epiphany is associated most closely with the baptism of Jesus. I think the Eastern church has the correct focus. While it is certainly an important epiphany to realize that God is God for all people, not just a select few who happened to have been born in the right place from the right parents, the greatest epiphany of all is that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.
NT Wright relates that in his role as a college chaplain, some of the incoming students would tell him. “You won’t be seeing much of me, because I don’t believe in God”. to which Wright replied, “That’s interesting. Which god is it that you don’t believe in?” The student’s responses were usually along the lines of what Wright describes as “spy in the sky”, a celestial Santa Claus that watches you all the time, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice, and doles out candy or lumps of coal accordingly. Wright would then say, “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god; I don’t believe in that god either.”
I’ve had similar experiences with some of my former students, many of whom were professing Christians as high school students but are now professing atheists. I tell them I don’t believe in the “angry sky god” of the new atheist writers, either. God is not a cosmic policeman, a celestial Santa Claus, or Thor for that matter. The God in whom I trust (which is, by the way, a better word choice than “believe”) can best be seen in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus- what he taught, how he lived, how he treated people.
Theology matters, and mistaken ideas about God have been the cause of some very terrible things throughout history. If you want to have the right ideas about God, and about how God expects humans to behave, look to Jesus. God is like Jesus.
The following is the script for the sermon I gave on Epiphany Sunday at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, with added hyperlinks to supplemental information.
When I was a science teacher, I used to tell my students a story about Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in the 3rd century BC. Here’s how it goes: The king had commissioned a goldsmith to make a solid gold crown. When he received the finished work, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting a cheaper metal for some of the gold the king had given him. But he didn’t know how to prove it. Archimedes, who was employed by the king for his scientific knowledge, knew that different metals had different densities. If he could determine the density of the crown, he would know whether it was solid gold or not. Density is mass divided by volume. He could determine the mass of the crown by weighing it, but how could he calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object without melting it down and destroying it? For days he thought about the problem, trying to come up with a solution. One day, he happened to be puzzling over the problem as he lowered himself into the bathtub. He noticed that the water level in the tub rose as his body went under water, and suddenly a light bulb came on in his head. He could calculate the volume of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced! Archimedes was so excited that he jumped out of the tub, forgetting to dress, and ran naked down the streets of town shouting “Eureka!” which translated means, “I have found it!”
You might say that Archimedes had an epiphany. If you look up “epiphany” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that its top synonym is “revelation”. Other synonyms include appearance, manifestation, and realization It comes from a Greek word that means to reveal. In is a moment like Archimedes had, you realize something you hadn’t realized before, you understand something in a new way. An epiphany is a sudden realization that can change everything…a Eureka moment!
The story about the Wise Men is an epiphany- something about the nature of God is revealed to those who are paying attention enough to notice it.
Matthew just writes that “there came Magi from the east”. “Magi” is often translated “wise men”, but it has the same root meaning as the word “magic”. It’s the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts, who was not an exemplary character. Magic was not exactly kosher; God’s people were advised to stay away from it in rather strong terms. Although we are not sure exactly where in the east they came from, one widely accepted theory is that they were most likely from Persia, where modern day Iran is.
So what’s the epiphany? What did Matthew realize about the character of God that caused him to include this particular story in his gospel? You’ll remember that Luke chose instead to include the story of angels announcing Jesus’s birth to shepherds, but in Matthew the good news of Jesus’s birth is communicated to those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. As one of my Baptist Sunday School teachers used to say, “God is concerned with the down and outs, but also the up and outs.” God cares about everyone and everyone needs God, whether they know it or not.
This idea that God was the God of all people would not have gone over well with many of the religious leaders at this time. Most of them thought of God in rather tribalistic ways. That is, they were God’s special favorites. As long as they were careful to observe all the laws God had given to them, God would specially bless them. Outsiders were dangerous and should be avoided, because they had different customs and beliefs that might cause God’s people to fall into sin.
Although the Wise Men were well-educated, rich, and well-respected in their own country, they would have been considered outsiders by most of God’s people at the time. They were of a different religion, were of a different culture, spoke a different language. They worshipped one god, but they called their god Azura Mazda rather than Yahweh. Their primary prophet was Zoroaster, not Moses. They were not descendants of Abraham and they did not observe the laws of Moses or the traditions interpreting these. They were not of the same tribe, and therefore potentially dangerous.
God’s people at that time took very seriously what they understood to be God’s command to separate themselves from Gentiles. They feared they might be contaminated by association with them. Had the Wise Men wanted to learn more about the God of Israel, they would have found it very difficult. For example, they would not have been allowed into the Temple past the outermost courtyard. They would have been told that in order to become a part of the people of God, they would have to be circumcised and follow all kinds of dietary laws and other customs. They’d probably have to give up their day jobs, too, as the magic arts were generally frowned upon.
God had commissioned his people to be a “light to the Gentiles” beginning with Abraham, whom he promised “in thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Whenever God’s people decide to hide God’s light under a bushel and hoard God’s blessings for themselves, God is going to act, sometimes in ways that surprise us. God met the Wise Men where they were. If you think about it, God actually used one of the tools of their religion to bring them to Him. They studied the stars looking for meaning and guidance, so God gave them a star, a star that led them to Jesus. And when they finally found Jesus, they knew they had found what they were looking for. Eureka!
The Bible records many Eureka moments, moments when God breaks through our blurred vision and our impaired hearing and makes an appearance. With Abraham, we have the beginning of the understanding that there is only one God. With Moses, we have the genesis of ethical monotheism; that is, the one God expects us to behave in certain ways. With the great 8th century prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, we see the light beginning to dawn on people that God is more concerned with how we treat other people than if we are saying the right religious words and performing the right religious rituals.
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11
On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3
The dictionary definition of “epiphany” is “an appearance or manifestation.” It can refer to a God-sighting, but it can also mean a sudden new understanding of reality, of seeing something in a way it has not been seen before. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany usually commemorates the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The epiphany here is that God is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But in Eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany focuses on the baptism of Jesus, as God spoke in affirmation of his pride in and relationship to Jesus. So the occasion of Jesus’s baptism could also be described as a theophany , a visible manifestation of deity.
All four gospels describe this event, which marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to me that Mark’s gospel doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. Unlike the other synoptic writers, Mark includes no long genealogies, no stories about Jesus’s conception, birth, infancy, or childhood. Mark gives a brief summary of who John the Baptist was and what he was doing, devotes only a couple of sentences to Jesus’s baptism, and unlike Matthew or Luke, doesn’t try to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized. There’s some question about exactly who was able to hear God’s voice. In the Markan passage, it seems to be only Jesus who hears God speak, but in the gospel according to John, both Jesus and John the Baptist hear it. Matthew and Luke don’t specify an audience for the theophany.
I believe that God is still speaking, although not in the ways that some people think. I don’t think God tells any politician to run for office, and I don’t think God tells any popular religious figure to extort money from their followers either as a proof of faith or as an investment opportunity. I don’t think God favors a particular team at a sporting event, not even when it comes to Alabama football. Not all the voices in your head are from God. Just because a thought comes into your mind does not mean it is God speaking, and just because someone says they’ve heard from God doesn’t mean they actually have. The writer of 1 John warns his readers “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God“. John goes on to say that Jesus is the criteria for determining whether a “spirit” (which I understand as a thought or idea, not a phantasmic entity) is from God. As I understand John’s words, “confessing Jesus has come in the flesh” means more than intellectual assent to a particular creed. It means that a person has had an epiphany about the nature of God: God is like Jesus. God is not what some atheists like to call “an angry sky god” out to punish anyone who steps a toe outside an arbitrary line. God is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out presents to good little boys and girls while the bad ones get lumps of coal. God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings when the right prayers or offerings are properly inserted. Rather, God is a force of love, love that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, and if you want to see what that love is like, look at Jesus. If you want to hear the voice of God, listen to what Jesus has to say…the “red letters” in some Bibles. And since actions usually speaker louder and more clearly than words, look at what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He brought hope to people who felt they had no hope, especially those rejected by the religious establishment and oppressed by the civil government.
It is unfortunate that people use portions of the Bible to justify wrong ideas they have developed about God, and then claim that they are speaking for God. I like the way the writer of the Hebrews passage above puts it: the Bible contains the testimony of many different people living in many different times, who tried to put what they heard God saying into words. But it is Jesus, not Moses, David, or the prophets, who is “the exact representation” of God’s nature, meaning Jesus has the last, most complete words. When it comes to understanding God, Jesus is the lodestone and the North Star. “What would Jesus do?” ought to be more than an outdated bumper sticker. It’s a question anyone who really wants to hear the voice of God, and not just the echoes of their own minds, ought to ask.
God is not at all like the way he is portrayed by some of the people who claim they have heard his voice. God is like Jesus, who personified self-giving love. And that’s good news to me.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Hebrews differs from the other New Testament letters in that it bears no salutation. We don’t really know who wrote it, to whom it was written, or when it was written. Based on internal references, many scholars speculate that it was written for second-generation Christians living in the lull between active persecutions by Nero and Domitian. The author seems to have been very familiar with both Platonic philosophy and the Hebrew scriptures, for he references both frequently in his arguments. Various names have been proposed as its author, including Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla and Aquilla. I find the latter suggestion especially intriguing, as its proponents speculate that the reason the letter itself doesn’t tell us who wrote it is because it was written by a woman, which if known might have caused it to be dismissed.
The main message I get out of Hebrews is that if we want to know God, we need to look to Jesus. God has been reaching out to human beings for millennia, trying to get through to us in all kinds of ways. From the dawn of human sentience, many people have managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a partial picture of God, or to hear a faint echo of his message of love. But until the coming of Jesus, no one person has seen or heard clearly. Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Want to connect with God? That happens through Jesus, too. Jesus is the lens through which we can see and know God most clearly.