How many of you have been to the Grand Canyon?
It is a beautiful and majestic sight! We saw it now several years ago, when the photography world was transitioning between film and digital. I still had a film camera, and so I took rolls and rolls of film, trying to capture this amazing beauty that I saw in front of me. Of course, you know the rest of the story. When I got home and developed the pictures, they were a huge disappointment. There is no way you can fully explain the beauty and the power and the majesty that you experience to see something like that in person. A picture cannot ever completely capture what you see with your own eyes.
When we were there, there was another family with a digital camera. Now you know that most digital cameras have on the back of the camera a preview screen, a digital representation of what the camera captures. After you take a picture, you can look on the back and see what is there. Of course, it is really helpful for photographers to instantly see what their capture looks like. But one photographer in particular that I watched would walk up to the edge, take a shot, and then show everyone in his family his picture. He would stop people from actually looking at the Grand Canyon, so that he could show them the tiny screen in which he captured an imperfect and incomplete image of what they were looking at. He would do it over and over again. Until the teenage daughter – it’s always the teenagers who are truth tellers among us – rolled her eyes and exclaimed, “Dad, I know. I can see it right here.”
Sometimes the equipment makes us doubt what’s right before our eyes!
Today, we start in earnest our next sermon series: “I Doubt It.” Last week, I introduced this concept of doubt in the first sermon in the series. I talked about this phrase from Paul: “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” And I talked about the fact that sometimes doubt can strengthen or even save our faith.
But the examples I used were fairly tame, fairly easy. What about when our doubts are…bigger? When we struggle with bigger and deeper questions about our faith?
Over the course of the next few weeks, we will explore some of these deeper doubts. Prayer. God’s Will. The Resurrection. Next week, Cheryl will look at this phrase that we often hear, but don’t always know what it means, “to have Jesus in our hearts.” And this week, we look deeper into the question of the Bible. What if I doubt that God wrote every word of it?
Today, we start with a story from the First Testament. The books of I and II Kings tell the story of – you’ll never guess it – kings. It tells of the kings of the northern and southern kingdom and mostly tells about their failures in the eyes of God. Most of these kings cared more about keeping the neighbors happy and so they worshipped their gods, and paid homage to their kings, and they largely failed to trust that God was sovereign and in control. One such example was Manasseh. He worshipped power and wealth and his own reputation. During his reign, he managed to just about kill the faith of Israel. He set up the Temple as a “choose your own god” center, and let it fall to ruin. He allowed or brought about the deaths of many of his subjects, instead of enacting justice like God commanded. And if that wasn’t enough, he sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering. A bad guy. In the eyes of his people, and of God, according to II Kings.
His son was not much more popular, and he was killed by assassins, leaving his grandson, eight year old Josiah in charge. This child king didn’t do much for the first few years – he was 8 after all. But by the time that he got into his teenage years, he had heard the stories of the Temple and its glory and decided that it was time to bring it back to its past glory. He hired builders and workers and resurrected the Temple. That’s where our story picks up in chapter 22. The work was done, and it was time to pay the workers. So Josiah sent a messenger to the high priest, who was in charge of the capital campaign offering. All this money was sitting in the Temple and they needed it to pay the workers. When the messenger returned to the king, he reported that the offering had enough to cover the invoices, and the workers were paid in full.
“Oh yeah,” said the messenger, almost out the door, “and the high priest gave me this book. Apparently it was stuck in some back room of the Temple and he thought maybe you wanted to see it.” And the messenger read the book that the high priest had found, out loud to the king. And as he read, the more and more of the blood in king’s face drained out. By the time that the messenger was finished reading the contents of this book, the king had started tearing his clothes, a symbol of helpless and hopeless grief.
Of course, the book that the high priest just happened to find in the back closet of the Temple as he was looking for the treasury was the Law of Moses. The covenant between God and the God’s people. They had been ignoring the covenant all this time, and no one really noticed. But the king knew at once that God was not going to be happy. Immediately, he sent word to the high priest to inquire of the Lord what to do next. The high priest went to find a certain prophet and preacher named Huldah and sat down with her and asked for a word from the Lord. She told them that they were right to be worried: God would indeed punish them for their failures, and the enemy was already at the gates.
But that wasn’t the end of the message of Huldah. There was good news. At least for Josiah. She sent the king the message that because he humbled himself and tried to get right with God, he would not be punished. He would not see the desolation of Jerusalem, but would be spared. In a word of promise from God, Huldah proclaims these words, “I have heard you.”
So, hear now these words from II Kings, as we uncover what happened next:
But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” They took the message back to the king.
Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.
(2 Kings 22.18-20, 23.1-3)
So basically, Josiah gets promised that he will be the only one who is safe. His ticket is punched. All he has to do is sit back and wait for the judgment. But he doesn’t do that. Look at what he does instead. He gathers all of the people of Israel together and tells them to sit down and has the high priest read them this covenant – the law of Moses. He reads them every single word of it. And then, he tells them, “we are going to do all of this now.” The passage says that Josiah renewed the covenant with God, and all of the people renewed their covenant with God. And they started practicing what this book told them to practice, and they rid themselves of the false gods, and they stopped the child sacrifice and detestable practices, and they lived according to the covenant. And because of these reforms, Josiah is known as a model for what a good king is supposed to look like.
And how did it all start? Because he read the book.
But he didn’t just read it…look how he read it:
- He read it with integrity. Front to back. And didn’t pick and choose the parts that he wanted to do. He read the whole thing and then he followed it with integrity. His life practice matched what he said he would do.
- He read it with humility. The passage said that he tore his clothes in grief when he understood what the book said. Huldah said that this humility and penitence is what made the difference in God’s eyes – he would not be punished because he had chosen the way of humility.
- And he read it with trust in the midst of doubt. It wasn’t as if Josiah lived this way only to save his own hide – he had already been promised his salvation. And it wasn’t as if he thought that God was going to reverse course – it was clear that the people and the city and the nation would be punished. There was plenty of reason to throw up his hands, doubt that anything he did would make a difference, and just wait for the end. But he didn’t. He led the people in these reforms anyway. Because he still trusted. He trusted that this was still the best way to live, even if it wouldn’t work to manipulate God into changing his mind. He trusted that the relationship with God is what the people needed, even more so once the Babylonians marched into town. And he trusted that in the midst of doubt, in the midst of the failure of the past and what would undoubtedly be failure in the future, living by the covenant still mattered.
And he believed this…because he read the book.
How about us? How will we read the book? I think that there are three ways to read the Bible.
The first is to assume that God wrote every word and that humans were not really a part of the process, and thus, the Bible is a list of directives for us to reenact literally. Some people say about the Bible, “God wrote it. I believe it!” They do not. 100% of the people who say that, don’t. They either haven’t really read it or they weren’t paying attention when they did. More than likely, they pick and choose the parts that they want to believe, giving them the comfort of certainty. But they do not build divinely-designed tents to carry around in the desert in order to worship their God. They do not send out family members who have skin rashes to the edge of the community until the rash heals up. They do not stone children when they talk back to them. This reading of the Bible is all about us and our need for certainty.
The second is to totally reject this idea about the Bible and swing to the other extreme. They believe that God had absolutely nothing to do with the writing of the Bible. It is a human document, plain and simple. The Bible is a book that serves only political and cultural purposes and was written as a way to deceive and/or manipulate people. Most if not all of the historical figures are fictional and most if not all of the events described in the Bible did not happen. There are parts of the Bible that we happen to agree with, but we are the ones defining what is right and wrong. This reading of the Bible is all about us and our need for certainty.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Somewhere on the spectrum between one extreme and the other. We believe that God guided the process of the creation of the Bible, but so did humans. Most of us believe that God was the reason for the Scriptures, but that it was written by imperfect human authors who were, well, human. And because of their humanity, there are times when we doubt their words, even if we don’t doubt the God that inspired them.
The middle is messy. There is not as much certainty. We don’t have all the answers here in the middle. But neither did Josiah. What if we read the book like he did?
- With integrity. We read the whole thing, and not just the parts that we agree with.
- With humility. Not with judgment on others but on ourselves, with a heart to how it might transform our own walk of faith.
- And with trust in the midst of doubt. Even if we don’t understand every word or every story, or even believe every word or every story, we pay attention to the relationship, to the covenant. To the promise that Huldah proclaimed from God, “I have heard you.” We know that this is still the best way to live.
The two extremes look really different, but they are the same. They are about us and our certainty. When certainty becomes your god, the Bible becomes useless. It is either useless because you believe it to be a silly fairy tale that doesn’t matter. Or it is useless because you have already proved that you have all the answers and would rather not be bothered with listening anymore. Either way, you end up sticking it in the back closet to collect dust. And the God that it points to becomes irrelevant.
What if we read the Bible in a new way? Not as a safeguard to our certainty, but as an invitation to trust the God of which the Bible points? What if we saw the Bible as a symbol of our relationship with God? A guide to our covenant and history with God? Not as a fourth person of the Trinity, but as a way to show us who God really is?
- It is a path into a dark wood, where we don’t know what we’ll see. But it is also a map and a compass, assuring us that others have gone this way before.
- It is a microscope with which to see God’s intricate wonders.
- It is a post-it note on our bathroom mirror to remind us that God is there and that God loves us.
- It is a family meeting; a hard conversation that we have to have sometimes with people that we love.
- It is the alarm clock that wakes us up when we have work to do.
- And the Bible is like a camera, that never quite perfectly captures God, but sometimes helps us to see God in a new way.
So let us remember not to let the equipment get in the way of what is right before our eyes. May the Bible never be the thing that we worship, but the thing through which we can see a living and active God. May the Bible never trip us up from seeing the God that is present and in our midst. May the Bible always open our eyes to the wonders beyond our imagination!