Why Would you Preach That!

A little over a month ago I began preaching through the book of Ezra, that book right after Chronicles that deals with all the people coming back to the promise land, and rebuilding. No, not Nehemiah with the walls and all that really cool leadership lesson stuff. This book is about the depth of mercy God goes too in order to restore His people. In this little book we see the people broken down and defeated. They have acknowledged that they have sinned and God brings them home from exile. There is a lot to unpack in this book as we see them struggle with maintaining their convictions and following after God, yet God is long suffering and patient with his people, bringing prophets and men of the Word  again and again to point them back to the truth of Who God is and reminding them that God has a purpose for them.

Now I say all that to point to something that happened a week before we started preaching through the book. One of my members asked me honestly after reading the book what this has to do with the church and why we would study something like Ezra. Now I love my church and I totally see where he is coming from in that we don’t usually think about preaching through Old Testament texts like Ezra. We love texts on King David and even Nehemiah; I mean leadership lessons galore there. However there is just as much meat in the harder texts of the scriptures such as Ezra, the Minor Prophets (which I wrote on earlier in the year), Kings & Chronicles, Judges, Ruth or Esther.  These texts are often overlooked or simply relegated to Sunday School material, when they have some of the most amazing stories about the work of God in the lives of real people. In these lesser preached texts, we get to see God actually change things over the course of human history. This is where I explained the importance of Ezra.

For a church like mine in the midst of transition and revitalization we need to see the part of God where He is for his people. The story of Ezra shows a people who lost hope in their future. They didn’t see how God could us them anymore, even though He set them apart and had done great things in the past, for them it is simply past, but not with God. Ezra shows us that God works in long term swaths of history, what was once broken down and dying can be restored to new life through the preaching and teaching of the word of God (Ezra 5), through the faithful walking of His people under his word (Ezra 3,6,7) and through faithful obedience to the truth (Ezra 9-10). Ezra shows us that the Christian life is filled with ups and downs, but God remains and His people will be renewed. This is why Ezra was such an important book to be preached, not only for a church in transition or revitalization, but also for a church plant talking about what makes them a community of faith verses just a random group of people who meet and talk about God stuff, or even an established church who needs to be reminded of the Great work of God in the history of His people.

The lesser preached books, mostly it seems being Old Testament biblical narrative, are essential to our Christian faith because they are essential to the revealing of who God is and how God works. We can’t avoid them because they are hard and above all you can’t avoid them because they seem, irrelevant. If there is one thing we know to be true is that the word of God is never irrelevant and the narratives of the scriptures especially. God is the central figure in all of His word and the full revelation of Jesus begins in Genesis and is woven into the whole tapestry of scripture, to leave out large swaths of the story in preaching to our congregations is to miss out on the work of God and to deprive our people of seeing God’s work in the live so the saints through all of history. So For preachers; preach boldly the hard narratives and skipped over books, and for congregants; yearn for such preaching that shows the whole of God’s Word to be true and authoritative. Also pray for the Lord to open your own eyes to see his work through the lives of those who have gone before, through the struggles and victory of God’s people.

The Bible, The Constitution, & Neil Gorsuch

We’ve all been in those Bible studies where a Scripture is read, then everyone takes their turn giving it’s interpretation in their own opinion. The only interpretation outlawed in these settings is one that says someone else’s interpretation is wrong and theirs is right. The idea is that the Bible comes to each of us differently, therefore there is any myriad of possibilities for each text (within reason). The only problem is that Scripture presents itself to us as a meta-narrative (one big story), not as a series of small stories or good little promises. It is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation, and the central figure of it all is Christ. As Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “Every story whispers His name.”

Textual criticism and interpretation sounds like an art form reserved for ivory tower theologians, but it has shown up in recent news in a most unlikely place: the supreme court nomination hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch. The question has been posed whether or not this supreme court justice will interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” and it has caught the attention of millions of Americans. News flash for you pastors and teachers out there: even people in the 21st Century are still concerned with the manner in which ancient texts are interpreted. Why the sudden interest from the public in something as seemingly dull as this? Because people want to be in authority.

To interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” is to place oneself in judgment over the text. It is to embrace the freedom to interpret words and phrases in light of one’s own personal opinion. Textual interpretation like this has a total disregard for the original intent of its authors. No attempt is made to discern what the words or phrases could have possibly meant to the founding fathers, those who crafted the very sentences themselves. In those who hold to such an interpretive theory of the text, there seems to be a fear of authorial intent which does not appease everyone’s wishes. So why worry with the original intentions of the authors when you can twist the text to say whatever the current cultural trends are saying?

As frightening as it sounds to stand in judgment over a text one didn’t write because one doesn’t like the obvious intention of its author, this is precisely what people do with the Bible. People say that there are various interpretations that people take on Scripture, but I think this is an over-generalization. As Mark Twain once put it: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” The task of every Christian is to discern the author’s intent in the writing of any biblical text and to then apply that to their lives. The task of every pastor and teacher is to communicate the author’s original intent to the original recipients in such a way that the 21st Century hearers are comforted, corrected, and edified.

While the Bible does refer to itself as “living” we ought not to consider it to be a living document in the sense that we can interpret it how we wish. It is only living in the sense that its words are the very words of God Himself, which have the power to bring life to the spiritually dead. The first Bible twister was Satan in the Garden of Eden, who sat in judgment on God’s Word when he asked, “Did God really say?” and then, “You will not surely die!” We must always strive to let God’s Word be our judge and never attempt to be its judge.

I heard the story once of a preacher who was asked if he stands on the Word of God and his response was basically, “No. I let the Word of God stand in authority over me.” May we all do the same.