What use is Scripture?
A sermon on 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and Jeremiah 31: 31-34 by Nathan Nettleton, 21 October 2001
Reading scripture with Gods people keeps us honest as we seek to interpret and live by Gods law written on our hearts.
The reading we heard from the second letter to Timothy contains one of the all time favourite memory verses. 2 Timothy 3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
The very first sermon I ever preached was on that verse. I was about nineteen years of age and a rabid fundamentalist and my sermon was an assertion of the belief that absolutely everything the Bible says about absolutely everything is absolutely historically and scientifically accurate. I am now well aware that such a claim was not coming from the Bible, but was being imposed on the Bible, and was much bigger than what this verse actually claims. The list given here of things the scriptures are useful for doesnt include the knowledge of astronomy or biology or even history. Rather it describes them as useful for shaping us so that we can live right and do good for others.
That does not mean that I no longer believe the scriptures to be inspired by God. It is just that I no longer see inspiration as a past and fossilised thing - carved in rock and no correspondence will be entered into. Rather I take more seriously the actual meaning of the word inspired, because this verse literally describes scripture as God-breathed, and breathing is a living dynamic thing. All scripture is alive with the life-force of God.
The pairing of this reading with the passage from Jeremiah tonight begs us to give this some more thought. Because in the Jeremiah reading we are promised a new covenant which includes having Gods law within us, written on our hearts. And since we both claim to be people of that new covenant, and people of the book, there is a challenge here to work out how the God-breathed word written on our hearts and the God-breathed word written in this book are related to one another.
We are a congregation who gather around the book on a regular basis. In our worship each Sunday we not only listen to the stories from this book, but we even symbolise our relationship to these stories by honouring the book itself. As it is processed in we stand and bow and acknowledge in song that the Lords words are the words of eternal life. Before we hear scripture read we pray that the Word will take root in the secret places of our hearts and bear much fruit to Gods glory. We read a lot of scripture. We have three readings and a Psalm every week, and over every three year cycle we hear a broad selection of readings representative of the whole Bible. Some of us have also committed ourselves to daily reading that takes us through the Bible in its entirety. And we do all this because we stand in a long line of faithful people who generation after generation have found the stories in this book to indeed be the words of eternal life words which are alive with the life-force of God and which keep us on track and shape us and equip us for lives of justice, mercy and peace. We hear in these stories echoes of our own stories and as we listen again and again we find ourselves being drawn into Gods story. We find our stories and Gods story being woven together so that we become more and more truly participants in the ongoing story of Gods life in the world.
But why, you might ask, is such attention to the book necessary if Gods Word has been put within us and written on our hearts? Hasnt the work of the Holy Spirit within us rendered the written Word of God obsolete? Isnt all this attention to written scripture a running back to the old covenant with its codes of laws to be studied and conscientiously observed? Dont we now have a more direct access an insider knowledge of the will of God so that we are free to follow the leadings of God whispered in our hearts without having to worry too much about these ancient writings?
Fair questions indeed. But they are questions that have been asked before, and questions for which those who have journeyed before us in the faith have passed on some valuable wisdom.
The first thing to remember is that we are called to live the life of faith in community as the body of Christ. One of the implications of that is that I am not called to read the word of God written on my heart alone as if it were only for me. I am called to read it in company. And that is not just in company with the immediate congregation around me at any given time. Instead I am to read it in company with all Gods people of every time and place. To refuse to listen to any traditions from the past would simply reducing the concept of democracy to a tyranny of those who just happen to be alive at the present time. If we acknowledge our solidarity with those who have gone before us, we want to allow their voice into our processes of discerning what God is saying to us now, and the best way of doing that is to listen to the writings that they have passed down generation after generation because they found them to be bearers of Gods wisdom and life.
Another thing that has been learned over the centuries is that although Gods Spirit writes the truth on our hearts, there is also a lot of other stuff written on our hearts that is not from God, and we dont always have the wisdom and discernment to pick the difference. And there are times when we allow ourselves to be seduced into thinking that something is from God because it suits us rather than because we have really tuned ourselves in with a prayerful and willing mind. It is the regular reading of scripture in the community of faith that keeps us honest. As we soak ourselves in words and stories that have long proven to be alive with the Spirit of God, we are training ourselves to recognise the difference between the whisperings in our hearts that are and are not from God. Reading the scriptures alone is good too, but it is reading it with other faithful people that really guards us against our temptations to make it say whatever we want.
We are not just called to obey what God told other people in the past. We are called to take our cues from what God is saying to us now, from the God-breathed words that are being written on our hearts. But if we are to be ready and able to competently discern the words God is breathing now, we need to be immersing ourselves in the stories of what God has said in the past and listening together as a congregation who encourage one another and challenge one another in faithful listening and living. Whether it is written in ancient texts or on our hearts, Gods word is alive leading all who will hear and follow in the way into the fullness of life and love and peace.