This morning I am continuing a short series of sermons on the Word of God. In the Bible the Word of God appears in three forms: 1) The Word of God Spoken, 2) The Word of God Written, and 3) The Word of God Incarnate or Made Flesh in Jesus Christ.
Last week, we talked about the Word of God, spoken. We saw that when God wanted to Speak to his people, he spoke through one of his prophets. More than 109 times in the Hebrew Bible we read, “The word of the Lord came to” one of God’s prophets, male and female. Thus God spoke to Isaiah saying, “I have put my words in your mouth.” And God spoke to Jeremiah saying, “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you will be as my mouth.”
The Greatest of the Prophets who spoke the Word of God was Moses. According to Exodus 4, God spoke to Moses from the midsts of a bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. God sent Moses to the children of Israel to tell them that he would lead them out of Slavery through the wilderness into the Promised Land, a land flowing with Milk and Honey. Moses told God that he was a poor choice for this task because he was slow of speech. God refused, and Moses then begged God to send another. That, I think, is the mark of the true prophet: The true prophet always protests because nobody wants to be a prophet. In scripture, prophets are thrown into pits, stoned and sawn in half. You can be a well paid preacher. When Elayne and I moved here from Charlotte, the man who drove the moving truck said, “Preacher, I know why you came here. Big house, big church, big money!” You can be a well loved pastor. At least two people loved my dad so much they tried to give him a house. His integrity—which made him well loved, bade him refuse. You can be a well paid preacher, like me, and you can be a well loved pastor like my dad, but you can’t be a popular prophet. Jesus said, “No prophet is acceptable where he lives!” That is certain; and I am almost as certain that “No true prophet ever received a salary—at least, not for long.”
According to Exodus 33 God spoke to the prophet Moses “face to face as a man speaks to his friend.” Don’t these words too literally. According to the same chapter Moses asked God to look upon God’s face, and God would not allow it. God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, and let the prophet glimpse his glory as he passed by, but God would not show Moses his face, for as the LORD said, “No one can look upon the Lord’s face and live.”
Moses’s conversations with God produced two very different kinds of laws. Some of these laws, like the Ten Commandments, were intended to be universal and timeless. Consider the Ten Commandments: Atheists might reject the first four, but even most atheists follow the last six. I think that the 20th century Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, was exactly right when he said that God gave us the Ten Commandments and ten fingers, so that we could use our fingers to remember the Commandments. Here is how I do it. It served me well in Confirmation Classes for several decades.
Hold out your right hand and see a “bee” on your thumb: 1) You shall have no other gods before me. “Engrave” the air with the index finger of the same hand: 2) You shall not make for yourself any graven images. Grab the middle finger, you know what people do with that: 3) You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. See a string around that fourth finger, the help you remember: 4) Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Give your leg a swat with the right hand, like your mother used to do when you cut up in church: 5) Honor your father and your mother. Imagine cutting off the little finger of your left hand, you would bleed to death: 6) You shall not kill. If you are married, look at the ring on the fourth finger of your left hand: 7) You shall not commit adultery. Imagine using your middle finger and thumb to lift someone’s billfold: 8) You shall not steal. Point your left-index finger, accusingly: 9) You shall not bear false witness. Rub both hands together: 10). You shall not covet anything that is your neighbors.
The second kind of laws were the 600 laws of commandments and ordinances that God gave Israel to make them peculiar and set them apart from the nations. Many of these laws are found in the Book of Leviticus. Some of you know Leviticus as the place where New Year’s resolutions about reading through the Bible in a year go to die. Unless you are willing to pay the price, the book of Leviticus can be as tedious as the laws that fill it. Many of us are in violation of those laws this morning. A couple of you ad shrimp for dinner last night, and Leviticus calls that an abomination. And many of us are wearing blended fabrics. That’s a no-no. And even more of us have meals cooked in pots that were, at one time or another, used for milk products and meat. That is not kosher. Just as bad, except for Mark Lamb, and a very few others with beards, all you men have rounded the corners of your head, and you women have cut your hair and come to church without a proper head covering. These laws seem tedious to us, but they are the thing that bound the people of Israel together as a nation, and helped them survive for 3,000 years, most of the time without a homeland.
We are talking about the Word of God, and now I have to shift gears, because I don’t want to give you the idea that the Word of God, is all talk. Sometimes the Word of God is a word spoken by God through his prophet to his people. Sometimes the Word of God is a Word spoken by the prophet to God’s people about something that God has done. God not only speaks, God acts. Thus, in Exodus 15 we read that .when Israel was caught between the Armies of Pharaoh and the Reed Sea, the Lord caused a strong east wind to blow all night, and the waters of the sea stood in a heap, and the children of Israel crossed through the midst of the sea on dry ground; but when the armies of Pharaoh with all his horses, and chariots, and horsemen followed, the waters of the sea rolled back upon them, destroying the army.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the little boy who came home from Sunday school one Sunday, and his dad said, “Well, what did you learn?” And the boy said, “Well we learned about how the children of Israel where caught between the army of the Pharaoh and the Red Sea, so Moses got on his radio, and called in close air support and the Israeli Air Force strafed the Egyptians, and dropped napalm, and they were badly beaten.” And his father said, “Did they really teach you that?” And the boy said, “No, but if I told you what they really taught me, you would never believe it.”
Well, the children of Israel could hardly believer it either; but the miracle of their delivery by the LORD at the Reed Sea became the central story of nationhood and their faith. Moses was their Continental Congress; and God was their George Washington, the Commander of Invisible Armies, the Lord of Host. The people of Israel started to celebrate right away. According to the text, Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron and Moses, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang these exact words: (Quote) “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Unquote!)
This song is not going to make the top 40. The lyrics aren’t catchy, and you can’t dance to it without the help a timbrel. However, scholars say it is one of the oldest bits in all of scripture. Miriam takes just 26 words to tell the same story that the author of Exodus would take more than 1400 words to tell. For many years, Miriam’s version was enough—it brought back the whole story; but as the generations of Israelites who were in the desert died out, it had to be retold in more detail. Eventually, Miriam’s song was written down, and set in the context of the Exodus story, and it became a part of the Israel’s Sacred Scripture, too, right along side the laws that God gave them through Moses.
This process of development should not surprise us. That is how things always work. I can tell those of you who were here 35 years ago, how I once baptized Jay _______ out of a soup bowel, and you will immediately remember the whole story. The rest of you need a longer explanation. You can get that explanation from me, or from the sacristan who forgot to put out the baptismal service, or from Jay, or from Monroe B______ who in a burst of creativity, fetched the bowl from the kitchen, or you can get from at least a dozen others. We will all tell the same story a little differently, but you will then know it yourself, and most of you will even believe it. That is how it was in ancient Israel.
Now once God delivered Israel at the Reed Sea, Israel began to count on God to deliver them again. There is a parallel in our New Testament. In 2nd Corinthians 1, Paul wrote about how he and his companions were once so bitterly unbearably crushed they despaired of life itself. They thought that they had received the sentence of death. He said, “This was to make us rely not on our selves, but on God who raised the dead. He delivered us from so deadly a peril, and on him we have set our hope, he will deliver us again.” Israel had exactly the same attitude, only they not on the God who raised the dead, the Christ event was still future; but on the God who delivered them at the Sea of Reeds.
This confidence in the Lord who delivered them is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. It colored all of Israel’s life before God. When Israel kept God’s commandments and things went right for the nation, they said God did it! “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” And when Israel broke God’s commandments, and things went wrong for the nation, they said, God did that, too, and they prayed “O, Lord, you have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. Turn and heal us, for your Name’s sake.” Naturally, many of Israel’s experiences before God were written down. Eventually, the Hebrew Bible grew to 39 books, books of Law, and history, and poetry, and allegory, and wisdom, and song. The Hebrew Bible was not just a book, it was a Library, and it was the Library of the Word of God.
Of course, then as now, not all of God’s people agreed on the Word of God, and the books that should be in the library.
As late as the time of Jesus—and a little beyond, there were some Jews, known as Sadducees who said that the Law of Moses, made up of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, was the Word of God, and nothing else was. In Jesus day, most of the Elders and Chief Priests were Sadducees. The Sadducees had almost total control of the temple, and the sacrificial system; and through the temple and the sacrificial system, they controlled the people of Israel. This was true until A.D. 70 when Roman Armies under Trajan destroyed the city of Jerusalem and razed the temple. After this, the Sadducees virtually ceased to exist as a power.
Fortunately, not all Jews were Sadducees. Many Jews were Pharisees. Even the most conservative Pharisees said that the Word of God was bigger than just the Five Books of the Law. They said that the Word of God, written, consisted of the Law and the Prophets. As far as we can tell, the prophets were divided into three sections: 1) The Old Prophets like Joshua, Judges, and 1st and 2nd Samuel, etc. 2) The four Major Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah (Lamentations), Ezekiel, and Daniel. 3) The twelve Minor Prophets including everything from Hosea and Joel to Zechariah and Malachi. According to the Pharisees, all these prophets spoke the Word of God to the people of God in times of crisis and trial.
Regarding scripture, Jesus was much closer to the Pharisees than to the Sadducees. Five times in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus referred to the Scripture as the Law and the Prophets. And in Luke 24, the Risen Jesus told his disciples that all that had been written about him in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled. Now the Psalms belonged to a section of the Hebrew Bible known as The Writings, so when Jesus recognized the Psalms, intentionally or unintentionally, he recognized the other writings, including the Wisdom Literature and various books of history. I Love the Psalms, and I think it is interesting that in the gospels, Jesus quotes from the Psalms more than any other book. By contrast Jesus did not quote from: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st Kings, 1st Chronicles, Job, and more than a dozen other books. This may mean nothing, or it may mean something. It may mean that the Son of God really was one of us. For, like most of us, he had parts of the Bible that he visited more frequently, and parts of the Bible that he visited less frequently. Of course, he knew it all, and he was famous for his command of it. Perhaps you will remember how, as a boy of 12, he visited the temple and amazed the teachers of the Law with his learning.
Even more amazing was the way that Jesus summed up the Hebrew Bible. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus said, “So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” And in Matthew 12 when Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the commandments, he said:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
In no uncertain terms—Jesus said everything in the great thick book we know as the Hebrew Bible could be boiled down and reduced to these two commandments. Jesus knew that the hard part of the two great commandments was not learning what was right, but doing it. It is easier to be a hearer of the Word than a doer of the Word.
False Prophets and false teachers always spend a great deal of time spinning a web. They tell their disciples how hard it is to understand scripture, and how much they need them and their teaching. The Master, all real prophets and sound teachers just the opposite. They tell us how simple things ought to be. Of course, especially in the case of Jesus, we know that it is a simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity. Jesus mastered the Scripture, and then said, “This is what it means!” It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “For that simplicity that lies on the near side of complexity, I would not give a fig; but for that simplicity which lies on the far side of complexity, I would give my everything.”
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.