The Word of God is a dangerous thing – lovingly, graciously dangerous
Paul Burt, 24 October 2021
Mark 10; Job 42; Psalm 19: 7–14; 2 Timothy 3: 14–4: 5; John 5: 36b–47
I have a confession to make. When I first started thinking about this sermon I made an assumption that the readings for today would be those that are a continuation of the recent pattern in the lectionary that has followed through Job, Hebrews and the gospel of Mark. That meant that today’s gospel would have been Jesus’ healing of blind Bartimaeus, with an echo in the Job Old Testament passage, where Job talks about ‘seeing God’.
Thankfully, Mary Copping put me straight when I double-checked. The readings are not those ones I just mentioned, but those that go with the theme of today being Bible Sunday. They include, as we have seen, that classic passage in 2 Timothy about the Scriptures being inspired.
My first thought when I discovered my mistake was that I would have to abandon what I had already started to prepare and start again. But two things prevented me from doing that. The first was that there is something a bit artificial about having a particular Sunday as Bible Sunday. It’s a bit like a gym deciding that it will have a particular day devoted to the body, or a choir deciding that it will have a voice day. You can see what I am suggesting, I hope. Having a Bible Sunday is a bit tautologous. If you removed the Bible from the readings, prayers and Eucharistic content of our liturgy you wouldn’t have much left. So in self-justification I could say that any Scripture passage, and certainly the ones I had focused on, could be pressed into service on a Sunday called Bible Sunday.
The second thing that persuaded me not to throw away my earlier thinking was that having thought a bit about sight – Bartimaeus receiving it and Job using it – I found myself wondering about our senses, sight and hearing especially, and the part that they play in our apprehension of God. So, if you will forgive me, despite my stumblings, I will start with sight and seeing, and use it as a gateway to our understanding of the Scriptures themselves – so that we will, I hope, in the end, honour Bible Sunday after all.
Starting with sight and seeing puts us in an interesting place because the Bible, taken as a whole, is not that interested in sight as such. And it is not that interested even in sight as a medium through which we might encounter God, notwithstanding those Job and Mark readings. Jesus heals Bartimaeus’ blindness. In an important and even literalistic sense, as a result of that healing he does see God, God incarnate, so he is sort of on the same page as Job. But if you had to rank the senses and how important they are in the Bible for being the channel through which we might know God, sight comes a very, very distant second to the winner, does it not? The winner being ‘hearing’, of course. More of that in a moment. But let’s stick with sight for now.
Job declares that until God revealed himself in his majesty, his mystery and his power through his invocation of the overwhelming, even intimidating, splendour of creation, his knowledge of God was deficient, being based only on hearsay. ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you’, he says, right at the end of the book. There is something of a parallel here with Dante and the climax of his Divine Comedy, in which Virgil at the conclusion of his guided tour of the journey of faith finally encounters God himself in the burning light of his divine being. The vision of God represents the fulfilment of life itself and the attainment of its end.
On the other hand, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, declared that when he looked out of the small window of his spacecraft he did not see God. And Moses, in his encounter with God on Sinai (as recorded in Exodus 33) was expressly forbidden from seeing God – being instructed to hide in a cleft as God passed by so that he could not see him.
When it comes to sight and God there is clearly more to it than meets the eye – if you see what I mean! If we glance at what the Christian wisdom of the ages which we call the Christian tradition says, that tradition connects ‘seeing’ and ‘God’ in a very particular way. It says that we walk in the way of discipleship through our exercise of the ‘eyes of faith’ until that time when we arrive at our destination, when the beatific vision makes the eyes of faith redundant, and we see God as he is. 1 Corinthians 13: 12 is a kind of two-line summary of Dante: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’
So, there will be a time for sight, but it’s not yet. In the meantime it is through the faculty of hearing that we are guided on our way. When the prophets presented to the people, and especially its leaders, the folly of their ways and the roadmap for their renewal, they did not hold up a screen or a picture or a diagram for them to see, or even a vision for them to contemplate. For other peoples there were gods that could be seen, touched even. But for Israel there was simply ‘Thus says the Lord’ – God’s word which must be heard.
And even when God becomes part of his creation and can in fact be seen in the limited sense that I referred to with Bartimaeus’ healing, intriguingly, when the writer of John’s gospel chooses to introduce Jesus to his readers, he calls him ‘the Word’ – God’s self-utterance. Not God’s selfie, or God’s template for humanity, or God’s hologram of himself. Just ‘the Word’ – the same word mediated by the prophets, but now unambiguously and redeemingly present, addressing all who will hear.
Intriguingly, when the writer of John’s gospel chooses to introduce Jesus to his readers, he calls him ‘the Word’ – God’s self-utterance. Not God’s selfie, or God’s template for humanity, or God’s hologram of himself. Just ‘the Word’.
I use that expression ‘redeemingly present’ deliberately because it reminds us that, through the Spirit, Jesus is no less present to us now than he was to his disciples and followers then. Of course, we don’t really believe that, because we can’t see him sitting in the pew in front of us, or next to Liz Stuart, or even behind the altar. Yet our Eucharistic prayer, which we will say and hear in a few minutes from now, starts with, ‘The Lord is here’, and the response is, ‘His Spirit is with us’.
A couple of weeks ago we sang the well-known and much-loved hymn ‘Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour’. The ending of its second verse goes like this: ‘Alleluia, alleluia, thou art here, we ask not how’. Well, I am taking issue with that, because asking how he is here is exactly what we are going to do. How is he, in fact, present?
We acknowledge at the start of the Eucharistic prayer that he is here, by the Spirit, according to his promise. And the Spirit is not here instead of him, as if he was in some sense standing in for Jesus in his own right, because Jesus couldn’t make it. That is because the Spirit’s activity is always to point to, and to open our eyes and ears to, the Son in his living presence, who is the pivot point of all creation, by whose presence and action creation is established, affirmed, redeemed and perfected.
I put it this way – resplendently alive in the midst of his people – because that seems to me to be the big idea contained in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, which is one of the best places to look if we want to know what Jesus’ presence among us is actually about as he, the Word of God, addresses us so that we may indeed hear him.
But what do we hear, exactly? A rich baritone booming around this space? A whisper in your ear? A still small voice? A prompted thought in your head?
Right near the beginning of the book we call the Revelation to John the author describes the voice of Jesus coming to him from behind (from behind, note, so that it is hearing alone that is involved here, not seeing), and the voice is a loud voice, ‘like a trumpet’ (1: 10). A few lines further on he describes Jesus’ voice as being ‘like the sound of many waters’ (1: 15). And, from his mouth came – that is to say, the words which passed his lips, were – ‘a sharp, two-edged sword’ (1: 16).
These are not literal, anatomical, scientific descriptions, of course. They are poetic, and therefore immensely powerful. Linguistic lumps of Semtex, you might call them – exploding with vividly authentic imagery, making it clear that the essential function of the Church is to be not so much the seeing people of God but the listening people of God – because the people of God are those who are addressed by the Word (capital ‘W’). His words penetrate like a sharp sword to the truth: the truth about God, the truth about us, and the truth about everything else. Words which because they are the words of Jesus are like a torrent, a cataract even, of tumbling, turbulent water as Revelation 1: 15 puts it. And remember, water kills just as easily as it enlivens, but isn’t that what our baptism tells us – that we must first drown before we can be made alive? The Word of God is a dangerous thing – lovingly, graciously dangerous.
But if it’s not a rich baritone, or a whisper in the ear, or a silent thought, how does he actually address us?
Well, we hear him speaking as we read and hear the Holy Scriptures, which are the servant of the Word’s self-utterance. Having heard the voice ‘like many waters’, John is instructed to write so that the churches of Asia can hear what the voice ‘like many waters’ is saying to them. I have chosen that description of Holy Scripture carefully: the servant of the Word’s self-utterance.
In other words, it is through the words of Holy Scripture that the Word (capital W) of God speaks – that Word who is spoken of at the start of John’s gospel who was with God from the beginning and is God, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. He is the one who speaks – through Holy Scripture.
This means that the essential activity of the Church – the activity that defines the Church as the people of God – is listening to the Holy Scriptures so that they may hear what the Word (capital W) of God says. That’s why the Scriptures are the centrepiece of Christian worship, because in the hearing of its words we hear the Word – we hear Jesus.
Therefore Holy Scripture – because it is the servant of the self-utterance of God who is the Word – is not a kind of Christian comfort blanket, at our disposal to protect us from hard truths, nor a weapon to be used in disputes with other Christians, nor a collection of spiritual masterpieces like arrows in a quiver. In all those ways of using Scripture it is we who are in control. We deploy it to our own ends sometimes. No. Holy Scripture is simply where we hear the voice of Jesus.
If you asked most Christians, especially Christians who love their Bibles, to pick a metaphor for the gracious words of Jesus that come to them intimately and savingly as they read, they would, perhaps, choose something like ‘a gold coin’ (precious, costly, beautiful), or ‘a love letter’ (intimate, personal, affirming). But Holy Scripture’s own metaphor for the gracious words of the Word is, as we have seen, ‘sharp, two-edged sword’. Left to ourselves it would never occur to us to use such an image. It’s much too threatening, too ambiguous (after all it’s two-edged), too military even. To use a modern idiom, it seems to weaponise Jesus’ voice.
But if we take seriously the Christian conviction that God the Holy Spirit has providentially enabled the Holy Scriptures to be what they are – the self-utterance of God’s Word – it seems to me that we must ditch our own glowingly comfortable metaphors and accept the one that God himself uses.
When we hear the words of Scripture, by which we mean, when we hear the self-utterance of the Word (capital W) of God, we should expect to feel its sharpness, its truth-telling, its exposure of our pretence, its dismantling of our self-regarding spirituality. If that sword has done its job there will be blood on the floor, the result of the destruction of the false self that we tried to hide behind when God came calling, when the voice like a trumpet sounded like many waters from the Living One in our midst through his servant, the Holy Scriptures. Amen.