A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2016
The Epistle, Romans 15:4-13 – The Gospel, Luke 21:25-33
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Bible Sunday and the Bible
The Second Sunday in Advent is called Bible Sunday. The epistle says that the Scriptures were written to give us spiritual strength and the virtue of hope. The collect turns this into a prayer that we may so “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” the Scriptures that we may be “embrace” and “ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” The gospel proclaims the enduring power and truth of God’s word. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away. But my words shall not pass away.”
The Bible is not always viewed positively because some people misuse it. Some use the Bible as a weapon with which to beat up their enemies. Some Christians seem incapable of having a normal conversation without inserting numerous Bible quotes, most of them out of context and only vaguely related to the point they are trying to make. I do not trust of any Bible teacher for whom the Bible is not, first and foremost, the source of his or her own profound interior transformation.
There is also a mysterious linguistic disease that plagues many people of faith; the inability to utter three simple words, “I don’t know.” To say that the Bible contains the authoritative revelation of God is not to say that it can answer every question. Too frequently, some notable Christian has insisted that an opinion is biblical only to have subsequent biblical or scientific study reveal that this person was simply wrong. This casts doubt upon what the Bible does teach us—for if this person was wrong about the Bible here, might not the Bible be wrong everywhere? Like the three words, “It is finished,” the three words, “I don’t know” are good words. Every Christian should learn them.
- The Bible as narrative and meaning
The Bible is a story—the story that gives our lives their true meaning. It is the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of humanity. Its tells how humans mess things up, and how God enters the messiness to accomplish his will anyway. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
This story, this narrative, competes with other narratives for control of lives. It competes with the economic narrative, which tells us to live for the maximum profit. It competes with the pleasure narrative, which tells us to avoid pain and pursue what feels good. It competes with the esteem narrative, which tells us to compete with others for status and attention. It competes with the happiness narrative, which tells us to pursue what will make us happy—whatever that means!
Too often Christians live in the wrong story. We drift away from the story of our redemption and begin to live for something other than Christ. The spiritual discipline of Bible reading and study brings us back to our true story. As we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures, we remember again who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. Bible reading confronts us and convicts us. It exposes our faulty motives and aims, leads us to continual repentance, and re-orients our lives towards the kingdom.
The collect and epistle focus on the virtue of hope— “that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” The Christian virtue of hope is not merely the general belief that things will work out somehow. It is the interior knowledge that God is working in our lives to prepare us for resurrection and eternal life in his kingdom. This is not only a doctrine that we “believe in.” It is an organic reality that is taking place within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Christian hope is analogous to the hope that a seed planted in the ground will become a mature plant. We “hope” the seed will become a plant. If it is planted in good soil, and if it is watered, fertilized, and receives sunlight, it will become a plant. This is not the same thing as saying, “I hope the Rams will win the game.” That kind of hope is merely a wish for one result among several other, perhaps more likely, possibilities. It may not happen. But God will do what he says he will do. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”
Thus, the main challenge to hope is our own lack of patience and perseverance. If we continue in faith and faithfulness, if we never stop returning to confess and receive grace and surrender again to God’s will and word, the life of God within us will continue to grow towards its eternal destiny. God is faithful, but sometime we are tempted to give up.
The main source of discouragement is living in the wrong story. We pursue things in the world, and become discouraged when we don’t get them; then we blame God for it. Many people do not need an answer to prayer as much as they need a change of story. The narratives of the world set us up for disappointment and discouragement. They cause us to live for things we may or may not get. They cause us to live for things which, in any event, we will lose by age or death, rather than to live for the sure and certain hope of resurrection and life.
- Bible Reading as daily narrative
It is hard to live faithfully in the story of redemption if we do not have some regular habit of Bible reading and study that brings us back to that story. The spiritual battle is precisely the battle to stay in our prayer and in the word of God—to stay in the narrative of redemption in Christ. Each day we are tempted to turn our focus towards money, to try to escape from our pain with some unfaithful painkiller, to aim at some sense of happiness as the world defines it. The Bible brings us back to our true story, to what God is doing in us, and to hope.
Any endeavor in life that is worthwhile takes time to learn and time to practice. Consider the time you devote to your favorite hobby, t.v. show, or sport. Consider the time you spend preoccupied with various forms of electronics and media—and consider how much anxiety you take on because of this immersion into the story of the world. Since heaven and earth— all these things—will pass way, but God’s word will last forever, what we really need is to change our priorities and our story. As we pray on Bible Sunday:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.