Understanding God's Story

Understanding God's Story

September 19, 2021 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

STEPS Series

Understanding His-story

2 Timothy 3:14-17

I had a teacher one time who used to say that the Bible is the story of Salvation History, in which history should have a hyphen (His-Story), meaning it is God’s story. If the first step of faith is to understand how our story is a part of God’s story, then the next step is to understand our spiritual history, or His-story. So today we continue our STEPS series as we think about the importance of the Bible in our spiritual journeys. Let us pray…

(hold up Bible) Do you remember your first Bible? Was it something you got at church like our third graders? This is the first Bible I ever owned. It was given to me by parents on Christmas Day 1978 as you can see by the way I filled in the blanks on the inside cover. My name was engraved on the cover but has long since rubbed off. Seeing my name on it always made me feel like this was God’s Word to me. And I wanted to learn it. I heard my pastor often say in sermons things like, “As God’s Word says…” SO I felt the Bible was an important source for faith.

I remember thinking I need to read it cover to cover. I began with Genesis and it started out well. I loved the creation story in chapter 1, then came to chapter 2 and thought, “This is déjà vu all over again. I figured the Bible repeats some things when its important. Then I got to all the “begets.” I wasn’t sure what a beget was so I looked it up and decided, “They did a lot of begetting in the Bible,” which made it more interesting. But then I got to the strange names and places and it slowed me down. I thought, this is just hard to read, but I kept plowing until I reached Leviticus, and I thought, “If I have to read about one more goat being slaughtered on an altar, I’m done.” So I jumped ahead a few books, and it got back into history, which I like, but then it took a left turn. I got into Psalms and it was written like poetry, only it didn’t rhyme.

So I skipped over the prophets to The New Testament. At least I was reading about Jesus. I was surprised to notice the Old Testament was this much of the Bible and the New Testament was much less. And I thought, “Isn’t Jesus a big deal? Should his part be more?” But anyway, I read on. Again more repetition, four Gospels not just one. And they didn’t all agree. I thought, “Can they not get the story straight?” Then came Acts which was fun, but then the epistles were hit and miss for me, so I jumped to the end, Revelation. Don’t get me started there. I wondered if the guy who wrote it was on drugs! That’s just weird stuff.

So its fair to say the Bible was very odd to me. I focused on the parts I understood and skipped over the rest. There was still enough to find meaning in it. Then I went to college and took some Bible classes. I came to understand the Bible is a collection of many books, not just one. And they’re not all in chronological order. It has different types of literature, history, poetry, legal writing, letters, apocrypha. But the Bible to me at this point was not much more than an academic subject. It was an object to studied.

But then I went to seminary and two professors forever changed what the Bible would mean to me. The first was Dr. Bill Mallard who taught high school students at the church where I worked. He had this charismatic way of making the Bible come to life. He always taught the Bible stories in their historical context; stories about real people who sought to understand God’s will and presence and what God had to do with them.

The other person was my advisor Dr. Fred Craddock, who was also the preaching professor. When he preached or taught, he made the Bible come to life. He drew out spiritual insights that spoke to my life and what I was dealing with. And that is when I discovered a significant part of my call. I wanted to be able to do that. I wanted to understand the Bible’s power in my life so I could share it as a resource to inspire others. That is when the Bible really became important to me. And I have spent my life ever since wanting to understand its words and truths to instruct my life so that I could help others.

So where are you with the Bible? If you’re watching online you might write that in the chat. Are you still in the-Bible-strange category? Is it like a history book to you? Something to be studied but not much more? Have you found it meaningful? Is it a source of spiritual power to you?

Last week we said that the first step of faith is understanding our life stories in the context of God’s story, but for faith to grow we have to know God’s story, and so the Bible is an indispensable resource for faith development. This is what Paul reminded his young protégé Timothy. He wrote two letters to Timothy which we have in the New Testament sharing instructions and advice on how to be an effective pastor. In today’s reading Paul saves his most important advice for the end. He encourages Timothy to keep learning scripture as his mother taught him to do as a child. And then Paul reminds him why scripture is important.

He says, “All scripture is God inspired…” Now some people take to mean that God reached out of heaven and took hold of the hands of those who wrote the Bible and dictated every word. Is that how Paul said we are to understand the Bible? Let’s look closer at his words.

The word Paul uses for inspired is the Greek word theopnuestos. It’s not used by Paul anywhere else. It’s a combination of theo meaning God and pneustos, which might remind you of words like pneumonia or pneumatic. It’s the Greek word for spirit or wind or breath. Literally the word means God-breathed.

Think of the creation of Adam in Genesis. God formed Adam from clay, but Adam became a living being when God breathed into him. God’s breath gave life. That is what Paul is saying here. God breathed upon or inspired those who wrote scripture so that their words communicate spiritual truth and power. When these words are read and considered God’s breath or spirit is still in them and that’s what gives us spiritual life.

Also, consider something else. When Paul refers to scripture what is he talking about? At this time there are no New Testament writings. The Gospels haven’t yet been written. There is only Hebrew scriptures, or what we would call the Old Testament, which for Jews is divided among the Lay, Prophets and Writings. But just which specific books are included here isn’t was not been clearly identified at that time. Jewish leaders would not confirm as official scriptures of the Hebrew Bible until 90ad at a conference in Jamnia. So when Paul says “all scripture is God inspired,” it’s not like it was completely clear just which scriptures were included, and, of course, he’s not talking about anything we today would call the New Testament.

The New Testament would not be confirmed as part of the Bible for nearly 350 years! And that would come through a very human process of councils and voting. For instance there are a number of books that were highly debated, books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith…In fact these books were actually included in the official Bible of the church until Martin Luther took them out during the Reformation. That is why if you ever read a Catholic Bible you will notice books you don’t see in a Protestant Bible.

Now I am not dismissing the significance of this process. I believe God works through human means, but they are human nonetheless. In fact, Paul wanted readers to be clear about this. In one place he even differentiated for readers what were his personal opinions and what he believed was true to God’s will.

In first I Corinthians 7 Paul ventures into the thorny matter of giving marital advice, but look at what he says:

v.10: “To the married I give this command (not I but the Lord)…” In other words Paul wants readers to be clear. What he says here is in keeping with what he believes is true to God’s will. But then he says,

v.12: “To the rest I say (not the Lord but I)…” Huh. Now, Paul wants to make clear, “I’m not sure this God’s will, I’m just giving you my personal opinion for what it’s worth. And then in verse 25 he makes that even plainer:

v.25: “Now concerning unmarried people, I have no command of the Lord but I give my own opinion…”

So when you read Paul’s statements condemning homosexuality, or that women should be silent in church and obey their husbands, or that slaves should obey their masters, how should we interpret such words? Were they Paul’s personal opinions or the will of God? Why do some people latch onto certain words as God’s will and dismiss others when there is no differentiation in the Bible itself?

As United Methodist we affirm several important beliefs about the Bible. First we support John Wesley’s view that the Bible is the primary source above all for nurturing faith. Secondly, we delineate this belief with several other important statements in our Book of Discipline:

“Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine…As we open our minds and hearts to the Word of God through the words of human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit, faith is born and nourished, our understanding is deepened, and the possibilities for transforming the world become apparent to us.”

“We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole. We are aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we work with each text, we take into account what we have been able to learn about the original context and intention of that text…through this faithful reading of scripture we may come to know the truth of the biblical message in its bearing on our own lives and the life of the world.” (B0ok of Discipline 2016, pp83-84)

This means we don’t read the Bible literally, but use the aid of Tradition, Reason and personal Experience to understand the spiritual truths of God that change us. This is what Paul meant by inspiration. The God who breathed his Spirit upon the writers of scripture, breathes upon the reading and teaching of scripture so that God’s timeless truths speak to us.

How many of you have ever heard a sermon and felt the preacher was speaking directly to you, as if no else was there, and you wonder, “How did that person know about me?” I’ve had that happen many times. Sometimes its been painful. It felt like a sin in my life was being exposed. Other times it was healing, as if God was talking right to me about my hurts. But always it is hopeful. This is what happens when we read scripture for ourselves, it widens the opportunities to hear from God.

[Just ask Andrew Dollard in our church. Years ago he was wrongly accused of something here in Carmel. It cost him his career, his possessions, and his family. Even though he was exonerated the damage was done. He moved to Florida to start over, but it was hard. One day sitting in a hotel room he became so depressed he decided to take his life. But right before going through with it, he noticed a Bible beside the bed. He opened it to Philippians where Paul said, “I have learned to be content in all circumstances.” He remembered learning that Paul had been wrongly accused and jailed. He wanted to know where Paul got the ability to write such words. That started him on a journey that brought him to faith and today he is in church every Sunday and allowing God to use him to bring hope to others because of the way God soke to him through scripture.]

This week in Steps you are going to talk about the impact of scripture and even experience the ways God speaks to us through the Bible. The spiritual practice we did before this week was to read various passages and make notes. If you haven’t already done this let me offer a few suggestions. First, don’t do this on the run. Do it when you have a few quiet moments and you are settled. For me, that happens best early in the morning. Have your book open, pause, maybe say a prayer for illumination, “Lord, open my mind to understand your word to me.” Then read the scripture one time, make any notes that stand out to you: important words, what might have been happening with the writer, what these words might have meant to the first hearers. Bible teacher Dick Murray offered these three questions when studying the Bible: What does this passage say about God? What does it say about people (me)? What does it say about God’s relationship to people (me)?

 Now, read the passage again, and ask, “Lord, what do you want to say to me through these words,” And spend at least 10 minutes reflecting. If something comes to you write it down. Now if you are in a group, here is what you will find very powerful. Others will share what spoke to them about the same verses, and it will be different but also powerful, and your appreciation for the meaning those words have will grow.

Now if you are someone who has struggled with the Bible because it seems so hard to understand, then at the end of the STEPS class next month you can join a Disciple Bible Study Class. Starting Oct. 26/27 there will be two groups led my wife, Susan Fuquay, on Tuesdays from 12-1:30; and another by Rev. Mindie Moore on Wednesdays from 6:15-7:30. You can register online at the church website under groups and classes or stop by the Connections Book Store after worship today and Susan and Mindie will be there to answer questions and even register you today! This class will help you know and understand the basic story of the Bible.

But let’s go back to a basic question. What’s the purpose of this? Why read and study the Bible? Is it just for our own personal comfort and edification? Let me finish Paul’s sentence. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Thomas Oden in his commentary of this passage summed up Paul’s statement here using the words of Matthew Henry: “(Scripture) instructs us in what is true, reproves us for that which is amiss, and directs us in that which is good.” (Interpretation series, 1&2 Timothy, p25) In other words, we read the Bible not just because it changes us, but helps us see how God wants to change the world through us. As the old saying goes, the Bible becomes a powerful tool when we go from our studying the Bible to letting the Bible study us. Or as my friend Dennis Sasso, the senior rabbi at Beth El-Zedek says, “Christians study the Bible to find answers. Jews study the Bible to find the questions we should be asking.” The Bible becomes powerful when we let it give us the right questions.

Let me close with a story I think captures the power and purpose of scripture. William Wilberforce was born in Yorkshire, England in 1759. His father and grandfather were wealthy merchants importing sugar from the West Indies. His family was not religious. The only thing they despised more than the Church of England were Methodists.

But when William was nine his father died. His mother was struggling to coope so she went him to live with his aunt and uncle in Wimbledon. They happened to be strong Christians and attended the church pastored by John Newton, the former slave ship captain who wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace.

Well, when his mother and grandfather got wind that this, they immediately brought William back home to protect him from such non-sense. He went to a local boarding school and because of his Methodist scruples he shunned the social life, but as time passed and those religious sensibilities faded, the social life became a lot more appealing. He became somewhat of a party animal, making lots of friends and winning people over.

Then his grandfather died, and his inheritance made him instantly wealthy. So you have a guy who likes to party, can influence people, and is rich. Only one problem. He doesn’t have any other purpose to his life. At college a friend of his talked him into going into politics with him, so he did. At the age of just 22 he shocked the nation when he was elected a member of Parliament. But he was not committed to leading. He didn’t do much work. He would later say, "The first years in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object."

About this time he took a trip with a friend and they read William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and its like it reawakened Wilberforce’s spiritual feelings from his youth. He started reading the Bible and he became convinced that he was wasting his life. That was living selfishly. But in this was hope, because he read of God’s forgiveness and he experienced a significant conversion.

But here’s where the Bible became even more powerful. Wilberforce became inspired, ah, there’s that word again, he became inspired by the Bible’s vision for the world. A vision of justice, and equity, and mercy. He looked at the fastest growing industry of his day, slavery, and knew it didn’t line up with the Bible’s vision for the world. He went to see his old pastor in London, John Newton, who himself had become an abolitionist. He expected Newton to encourage him to enter the ministry, but instead Newton told him his political position and ability to influence people was something God could use. He said who knows but that God brought you to this place for such a time as this.

And that began the passion that defined the rest of his life, ending slavery. Now get this. His political views were informed by his biblical vision. Finally, in 1807, slave trade was officially outlawed in England. In his Letter on the Abolition of he Slave Trade, Wilberforce, of course, quoted scripture from Acts 17:26: “God hath made of one blood all nations.”

But Wilberforce’s biblical vision did even more to him. He gave away one-quarter of his annual income to the poor. He fought on behalf of chimney sweeps, single mothers, Sunday schools, orphans, and juvenile delinquents. He helped found parachurch groups like the Society for Bettering the Cause of the Poor, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Antislavery Society.

All of that because of the ancient, seemingly irrelevant words from this book! That picture of hope for his life and for the world is what it said to William Wilberforce. What does it say to you?

Good early life description: http://vancechristie.com/2016/08/31/william-wilberforces-great-change/