Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
February 13, 2011
JESUS AND THE WORD OF GOD
Texts: Matthew 5:17-24 and John 14:25-26;15:26; 16:12-13
Last week I focused on the form of the Word of God as Scripture, the Written Word, our Bible. But the Word of God is deeper, longer, broader than the Written Word. The Celtic Christians said that there are two great books of Revelation: The Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture. Creation, too, reveals God. God speaks through life itself. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima the Russian monk records his spiritual teachings.
Here is one:
Perhaps we would do well every day to bow and kiss the earth, then rise and kiss the Bible, as in some liturgies the priest kisses the Gospel when it is read – or am I just imagining this?
Today we will examine the relationship of Jesus to the Eternal, Written, and Living Word of God.
First there is what we could call the Eternal Word, what John’s Gospel describes in its prologue:
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
I like to translate: “In the beginning the Speaking and the Speaking was with God and was God.” The Word of God is a Speaking, a living, breathing dynamic thing. And it always is, and never finished. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote:
The Word of God
never comes to an end.
God’s last word.
At one point in Hebrew tradition, this Word of God present at the beginning was personified as the Divine Feminine, God’s daughter Hochma, Wisdom, later translated in the Greek as Sophia. The book of Proverbs pictures her at God’s side as God’s darling daughter or master architect involved in creation itself (Proverbs 8:22-36). So when John writes, “In the beginning was the Word,” we should hear echoed: “In the Beginning was Wisdom, Hochma, and Wisdom became flesh and dwelt among us.” God’s eternal Word, daughter Hochma, has become a son!
One of our most beloved sayings of Jesus goes:
Come unto me, you who are come . . . weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am lowly and gentle of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light (Matthew 11:28-30).
But if you look in the Old Testament Apocrypha, books included in the Roman Catholic Bible and used in Jesus’ time, and turn to Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) you find these words:
Come to her like one who ploughs and sows
and wait for her good harvest.
Put your feet in her fetters
and your neck in her collar.
And when you get hold of her
do not let her go.
For at last you will find the rest she gives,
and she will be changed into joy for you.
And her fetter will become a strong defense
and her collar a glorious robe.
(From Sirach 6:14-31)
So we might say that Jesus is the Divine Wisdom made flesh, a wisdom present in all spiritual traditions. God is not stingy with His/Her wisdom. It is we who hoard it as only ours.
So now we move to the Incarnate Word, the Word become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. He reveals the Word without exhausting it. What was his relationship to his own Jewish scriptures? He no doubt had a love and reverence for them. At twelve he precociously debated their meaning with the astonished elders and scholars in the temple of Jerusalem. But as we see today he boldly interpreted them – and in new ways – which challenged and threatened the religious authorities of his day. Matthew’s Gospel is careful to record Jesus saying:
(One does not say that unless one has been accused.) But then Jesus adds provocatively:
That sounds like provocation, doesn’t it? Jesus was challenging how the religious leaders interpreted scripture and how they defined righteousness. We should not read his words as anti-Jewish but as the bold words of a Jewish reformer who wanted to turn God’s people back to the deeper intent of the Law, which is the Law of Love. What is the first and greatest commandment? Jesus was asked: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).
Jesus was seeking a deeper righteousness summed up in love. The question was not, “What does the Law demand?” but “What does Love demand?” So he created six antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount, six times saying, “You’ve heard it said of old, but now I say unto you.” This spiritual audacity no doubt drew opposition: “Who is he?” Today you’ve heard the first:
You have heard that it was said to the ancients: “You shall not kill,” and “whoever kills shall be subject to legal judgment.” But I say to you: Everyone who is angry with a brother or sister shall meet judgment; and whoever says “Raka” to a brother or sister shall be liable to the Sanhedrin; [Raka was an Aramaic four-letter word. We’re not sure what it meant, but you did not want to be called one! (Young people, what’s the worst word you can be called? No, don’t tell me!) And the Sanhedrin or Jewish council was a court where moral charges were heard.] And whoever says “Fool!” [the Greek word is “Moron”] shall be liable to the Gehenna of fire (translation, H.S.S.).
Gehenna was at one time the local garbage dump outside Jerusalem which was always burning, the burning valley of Gehenna. It became a figure of speech for divine judgment. “If you don’t behave you’ll end up in Gehenna!” We need not take it literally and picture an eternal fire of Hell. Our hells can be now, just as the kingdom of heaven can be now. Our hearts and minds can become a burning rubbish heap. In the Middle Ages anger was called “The Devil’s Furnace.” Our hearts can become a Gehenna, right?
Jesus was deepening the Law, deepening righteousness to say: Killing and actual murder are not all the issues we must face. On a daily basis anger, angry speech and actions are more to the point. So he added: “When you come to offer your gift at the altar in the temple and remember that a brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first and make reconciliation; then come back and offer your gift!” (Matthew 5:23-24). Maybe that’s why it takes so long to get the pledges in!
Note that Jesus tells us to take the initiative, not to wait for the other. Who knows what the other thinks? What is possible? Love takes the first step, as God took Love’s first step toward us in Christ.
So we have the Eternal Word, the Written Word and the Incarnate Word. There is one more important form of the Word of God: The Living Word. The Word, as we say every week, “among us and within us.” “God is still speaking,” as the United Church of Christ website is named. And this Word speaks through the Living Christ and the Holy Spirit. Famous Congregationist minister John Robinson said in 1620:
The book of Deuteronomy says, ‘The word is not too hard and not too far away’ . . . . “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
Jesus spoke of the living, ongoing Word in John:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Paraklete, the Holy Spirit [Paraklete means literally “one called alongside,” so is sometimes called Comforter and Advocate. Isn’t that what one called alongside does?] whom Abba will send in my name will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said. [I like that, the Holy Spirit as Reminder!] . . . I have said many things to you, but you are not able to bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes (The Paraklete) he/she will lead you along the way of all truth. (From John 14:25-26; 15:26; 16:12-13, translation H.S.S.)
The early church experienced the Living Christ still speaking to them through the Spirit, and these living words were as important as the historical ones.
So we seek the presence of the Living Christ as we read scripture. He reads it with us, looking over our shoulder saying: “Look here! Don’t miss that! What do you think this could mean for you today? Here’s a hint. Try it out.”
He is our guide across the sometimes rough and bewildering waters of scripture, the clearest revelation of God by which we judge all notions of God. As someone said, “Jesus is the answer to God’s bad reputation!”
And he is the secret to the Sermon on the Mount which at times seems to be impossibly difficult. There are moments we say, “Well this is just impossible!” And he says as he said to the disciples: “What is impossible with us is possible with God.” With Christ, in Christ, the Sermon on the Mount is the impossible possibility. I’d rather have the impossibly perfect put before me than the easily possible. Else we’d never reach for God. Would you rather Jesus say, “If you’re offering your gift at the altar and remember a brother and sister has something against you, go have a beer and forget about it!?”
I close with an image from Madeleine L’Engle. She was crossing the waters on a ferry boat. She observed the birds. The pigeons would flap their wings furiously against the wind, finally catch up to the boat, then a gust of wind would blow them back, then they’d start all over furiously flapping until they made it back, then another gust of wind, and so on. Does this sound like some days to you?
But then came the seagull, soaring, flying, effortlessly it seemed, dipping turning, rising, carried aloft on the wind. The seagull was using the wind not fighting it.
The righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees, the deeper righteousness Jesus had in mind, is not trying to be super-pigeons. A super-pigeon is still a pigeon, trying to catch up to righteousness on his own strength.
Christ calls us to be seagulls, soaring on the wind, the Breath of God, catching the Spirit, letting it carry us aloft, living the Love of God in the presence and power of the Living Christ.
Are you ready for flying lessons? First breathe. Breathe deeply. God is filling your lungs, your blood, your being with God!
1 Fydor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1980), p. 322.