HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 22:25-31
EPISTLE LESSON Acts 8:26-40
SERMON: “The Illuminator”
Quiz this morning -- don’t panic. This is for your self-knowledge, not for me to collect or grade.
Do you know where, at this moment, there is a Bible in your home that you can read?
Have you picked that Bible up and read something from in the past week? month? year?
The Bible is a collection of books – Do you know how many books there are in the Bible? In the O.T.? in the N.T. ?
Over how many years were the books of the Bible written?
in how many languages?
If we were to take a Bible content exam, like the one required by the PCUSA for ordination, how would you answer the multiple choice question:
72. The parable of the sower is found in the gospel according to
d. all of the above.
In which gospel do we read about Jesus’ encounter with a man named Nicodemus? John
Or how about my favorite question from the 1989 exam (the year I took it):
47. As predicted to Hezekiah by Isaiah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, died:
a. in the siege of Jerusalem
b. by the same illness that threatened Hezekiah
c. by the sword in his own land
d. by a fall from his horse
Enough of that!
Imagine for a moment that you have a house-guest, someone who knows that you are a Presbyterian and worship at the local Presbyterian church. After dinner that person says to you, “I’ve always been curious about the Bible. I’ve even read parts of it, but I know there’s a lot I don’t understand. Can you explain it to me?” Where would you start? How would you begin to explain what the Bible is all about?
Would it be easier if the person just asked about a particular passage?
That’s what happened with Philip on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
Heeding the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Philip approached the chariot of a man from Ethiopia, heard him reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and asked the guy if he understood what he was reading. “How can I” asks this Ethiopian, without someone to explain it to him. Then he invites Philip up into the chariot and Philip begins with that particular passage of scripture and brings the conversation to a point where he can tell this Ethiopian the good news about Jesus Christ.
Imagine yourself as one of the players in this scene. Which part are you playing? Are you Philip, eager and ready to teach what you know of Scripture, nudged by the Holy Spirit, excited about the opportunity to tell someone about Jesus, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, that he is the Messiah, the One God sent to reconcile with humanity. Or would you be more comfortable taking the part of the Ethiopian, one born outside the Hebrew culture, and yet you’ve heard enough to believe in God. You’re trying to figure this whole thing out and willing
to listen to someone who can explain it to you.
Perhaps you’re the audience, that recognizes the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding Philip to travel this road and to approach the Ethiopian’s vehicle. Maybe you’re the audience that sees the Spirit of God encouraging the Ethiopian government official to trust Philip, whom he has never met and has no reason to believe.
God does call at least some of us to be Philips, to illuminate the Scriptures for others. It’s important for all Christians to read the Bible, but if we suspect we might have the illuminating gift, then it’s doubly important for us to get to know the Bible intimately.
We should acknowledge that the Bible is not easy reading. It was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. What we have is a translation, and some of the translations we have are very good and as close to the original meaning as we could hope for, but they are still translations which puts a layer of interpretation in place before we even get started. It comes from different cultures. Most of us aren’t sheep herders or farmers who rely on oxen and primitive implements. That’s what makes Eugene Peterson’s The Message valuable, because Peterson reframes much of what the Bible says into contemporary culture.
The Bible talks about difficult things. It talks about money and relationships and sex and about raising children. It talks about heaven and hell and sin. It talks about struggle and stress and suffering. It talks about discipleship and commitment and sacrifice and a lot of other things we find challenging and complicated.
The Bible is a long book. Its content is centuries old and its original audiences were people with vastly different life experiences than ours. Some of it, like the ancestry list in Genesis and 1 Chronicles, are downright boring. Much of it is not in chronological order. It uses story, history, and poetry to offer its message. It employs literary tools from hyperbole and metaphor to simile and symbolism. One needs a philosopher’s mind to follow some of Paul’s arguments in his letters. Then there is always the question of how things like God’s dealings with the ancient Israelites have anything to do with us.
Reading and understanding the Bible is difficult, but not impossible. Yet most Christians who work at it find it worth it as they find themselves inching closer to God and Christ with the help of fellow believers and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Whether you are Philip or the Ethiopian there are a few things you can do to make reading and studying God’s word a bit easier.
1. Start. A page a day, a chapter a day. Make of it a habit – before you go out the door in the morning, before you go to bed at night – pick a time and stick to it. Start anywhere. Don’t feel you have to read everything on the first time through. Leviticus, more than almost any other biblical book, is tied to the daily minutiae of the old temple sacrifices and has very little to do with our lives directly. You can safely delay reading Leviticus. Read the stuff you can grasp first. When you get bogged down, skip ahead. Mentally bracket the difficult passages. You’ll eventually fill them in.
I frequently encourage people to start in the gospels. Begin with Matthew; just skip over the ‘begats.’
2. Use a modern translation. The old King James Version is beautiful but it's written in 16th-century English. The Bible is tough enough without making it harder. King James is great for the 23rd psalm at funerals and Luke's birth narrative at Christmas. For personal study choose one of the many good modern versions, such as the New Revised Standard Version, the Common English Bible, the New International Version (which is the one we have for our pew Bibles), The Good News Bible, The Message and others.
3. Consider Using a Study Bible. These are special editions of the translations that have “Helps” such as introductions to the books, explanatory subheads above chapters and footnotes about difficult passages. One good one is the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version) but there are many others.
4. Approach the Bible with an open mind -- and heart. Read it for what it actually says, not to confirm what you think you know about it. Just as we pray in worship for the Spirit to shed light on what we are reading, pray before you start reading. Listen for what God says to you as you read. In seminary they taught us to do “exegesis” which means to draw the meaning out as compared to eisegesis, inserting one’s own belief into the text. Some people get an idea in their head and go searching for biblical quotes that will support their idea. But to teach or preach we are meant to take a text and work at understanding what God’s idea is saying to us through the word.
5. Keep a question list of things you don’t understand. Later, you can ask other Bible readers or look in commentaries that explain the passages. I have a lot of commentaries and other Bible study tools in my office. You are all more than welcome to use my library.
You may find additional practices that work better for you, but most of all, don’t give up. Bible reading is a lifetime adventure, and it’s well worth the time you spend doing it.
I would venture to say that if you gathered any number of people into a room and asked their opinion of the reliability, authority and importance of what we know as the Holy Bible, you would get as many different viewpoints as you had people in the room. Prolific English author G. K. Chesterton quipped, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
There are people who consider the Bible to be little more than a collection of ancient writings, outdated and with no more validity or authority than any other writings of the times. But Daniel Webster noted that, “The Bible is a book of faith, and a book of doctrine, and a book of morals, and a book of religion, of especial revelation from God.
Our Presbyterian Book of Order speaks of “the mission of the Church [is] given form by God’s activity in the world as told in the Bible and understood by faith,” [G-3.0100] and lists among the duties of elders that they “should cultivate their ability to teach the Bible.” [G-6.0304]
So, who are the great Illuminators? Philip was one. Certainly God’s Holy Spirit is one. Maybe, just maybe God is calling you to be one too.