The word of God is always dynamic and uncontainable
Liz Stuart, 23 October 2022
Isaiah 45: 22–25; Luke 4: 16–24
Occasionally the diocese asks me to do a bit of teaching on preaching for those who are training for ministry, ordained or lay. I always present the passage we have just heard read from the gospel of Luke as the perfect sermon. Why? Well, for a start it is mercifully short – nine words in fact! More importantly and seriously, it leaves people asking questions.
You can just imagine people’s puzzlement as Jesus finished uttering those nine extraordinary words: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. What? Jesus would have been pleased. He was a great one for questions. He asked many more than he answered. This was the inauguration of his public ministry, and right from the start it is clear that living with and wrestling with questions, rather than receiving clear answers, is an essential part of being a disciple of Jesus.
And thirdly, it provides, I believe, in nine words a theological key to what all sermons should be about: every sermon should show how the scripture is fulfilled for the hearers today by Jesus. And also it provides a key to how we should read scripture – through the person of Christ. That is what he is saying to the people gathered in that synagogue: ‘The words you have just heard from the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled in me’. He does not explain how. That is a question for them to wrestle with.
Today is Bible Sunday. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on what part the Bible plays in Christian life. We call the Bible ‘the word of God’, but we need to be careful here because, in truth, the Word of God is Jesus. ‘The Word was made flesh’, not paper and ink, and he could not be contained by a tomb, never mind by the pages of a book. Throughout scripture the word of God is never something static, it is always dynamic and uncontainable. As our reading from Isaiah today indicates, it goes forth from God’s mouth into the world. It is an expression or emanation of God and contains God’s power.
‘The Word was made flesh’, not paper and ink, and he could not be contained by a tomb, never mind by the pages of a book.
I would suggest that the Bible is best understood as the authorised record of the attempts of our ancestors in faith to make sense of their encounter with the living word of God. The Holy Spirit runs through it like sparks through the stubble. It must therefore be revered and taken very seriously, but it must not be confused with that living word and, like everything else, our encounter with it must be made through Christ.
In that way, scripture is never closed as the binding of a book may suggest but always open, because Jesus is not confined to the past. He is not dead, but alive. We do not read scripture through a historic figure but through a living being with whom we are called into relationship. As our relationship with him deepens, so will our understanding of what it means to read scripture through him. This is why we can never stop at one reading, one interpretation, as individuals – but more importantly as Church. This is why we read and listen to same scripture over and over again as part of our deepening relationship with Christ.
Jesus gives an example to us today of what all this might mean. He reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61 and he edits it as he goes. He adds ‘recovery of sight to the blind’ and he omits the concluding phrase from what we know as Isaiah 61: 2, ‘To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God’. He lays hold to Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom, but not uncritically; his relationship with the living God has taught him that the kingdom he has come to proclaim and embody is not the nationalistic one envisaged by the prophet Isaiah. It is not one of violence. Like a musical variation, he repeats the material but in an altered form.
We lay hold of the insight, interpretation and theology of our ancestors in faith, but not uncritically, and we play them out in altered forms. We read them through the lens of Christ. But we must remember that that lens is tinted by so many things: our race, our gender, our economic situation, our place in the globe, and so on. We do not read through clear glasses, and neither did our ancestors in faith. And that is why we need to keep studying, keep arguing over the interpretation of scripture – to remind ourselves that our engagement with scripture and our engagement with the living Christ are always mediated through changing, human concepts and therefore contingent and provisional.
I wonder if you ever walk through Peninsula Barracks. I often do as I walk to and from the university and the city. There is a street called Gar Street which always makes me smile, because the gospel of Mark famously ends with the Greek word γὰρ, meaning ‘for’ or ‘because’. For centuries people have argued whether the ending of Mark is missing or whether the ending is deliberate, because there is no resurrection story in Mark and the final sentence is, ‘For they were afraid’.
I was taught New Testament at university by a chap called Canon John Fenton who believed that the open ending was deliberate, because he said this is where we come in. We are the next chapter of scripture, the next generation of people trying to make sense of our encounter with the living God in Christ. We are living scripture.
For many people, you and I are their first and sometimes their only encounter with people trying to make sense of being a follower of Jesus. I find that terrifying. So, we need constantly to read our own lives through the lens of Christ and check ourselves against it, because you can be sure others will be doing so. I sometimes wonder if that is what judgement is: seeing our lives from Christ’s perspective. Just as we read, so we will be read.