God of the Bible

Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. 3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

How do we know anything about God? Throughout history people have made many claims about God, and usually that god looks a lot like us. Maybe a little bigger, maybe just a little more powerful, but a lot like whoever is doing the theology. Our god usually likes the same things that we like, and dislikes the same people that we dislike. Or, as has been said many times, God created human beings in his image, and ever since, we have been returning the favor.

Last week we looked at how God is revealed through nature. We looked at the really big things, the sun, stars, mountains and lakes. We looked at the really little things, the cells, the babies, and the ameba. We looked at the way things function, from the size of the earth, to the balance of nature, and I said that all of this points to a creator. I gave this practice of finding God in creation a name, we call it “Natural Theology.” When God is revealed through creation, we call this natural revelation.

But there are limitations to Natural Theology. It is incomplete and it is easily misinterpreted. Thankfully, there are other ways that we can understand God. There is natural revelation, and then there is “Special Revelation.” When Moses found a burning bush and did what anyone would do with a burning bush, talk to it, he found God speaking to him through that bush. The God speaking through the burning bush revealed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God revealed that he is Yahweh.

But we don’t all have burning bush moments. Maybe you have had some kind of experience where God seemed very real and present to you. Maybe not. For many people, our Special Revelation of God comes in the form of other people’s experiences with God. God is revealed in the stories of the faith community, particularly the stories that have been collected and canonized. We call these stories “scripture.” Today we look at how God is revealed through the scriptures.

Our Psalm for this morning sounds like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount as each begin with blessings. Verses 1-2 in the NIV say, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”

The word in verse 1 that is translated as “blessed” is the Hebrew word “asher,” which simply means happy. What follows are instructions on how to be happy! Make good choices! Don’t walk in step with the wicked. Don’t keep company with mockers. Negative people will bring you down! So who should you spend time walking and keeping company with? Those who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night.

It isn’t exactly clear here whether those who wish to be happy are supposed to be walking with those who meditate on the law day and night, or is the practice of meditating on the scriptures day and night make you happy? I think you could make a good argument for both, but yet either way, this doesn’t really fit my reality.

I know some Bible-thumping Christians who are really not fun to hang out with, and I know some people who read their Bible a lot who don’t seem to be very happy. Just turn on your television, radio, or Facebook feed and you will find angry Christian men and women, yelling at you as they quote scripture. At times if you listen to their voices and not what they are saying, you might confuse these people with professional wrestlers. This is probably why they chose to translate ‘asher’ as blessed and not happy.

But I’ve also known plenty of people who seem genuinely happy because they study the scriptures. I know Bible scholars whose job it is to study the scriptures and they just seem to gush over their favorite texts. I’ve seen pastors moved to tears while readings stories of love and redemption. I know people who dig into their Bibles every day, and have done so for years, because they are excited about what they can learn, even as they read the same text over and over again, year after year.

So why does the same text make some people into bitter and angry people, and why do others find joy and happiness in the text? I think it all comes down to how we read it.

I don’t love that the NIV refers to the scriptures in Psalm 1 as God’s law. Laws are necessary and we need people who can read, interpret, and writes laws. But what the Hebrew actually says is that people are blessed, no they are happy, when they read God’s Torah. And yes, there is law in the Torah, which is the first five chapters of the Bible. But it is much more. Some of the greatest stories of the Bible are found in the Torah. We find the creation narrative, the calling of Abraham, and the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors in Genesis. We find the story of the Exodus and God leading his people out of slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus (it is appropriately named, after all). So many great stories about God creating and delivering his people can be found in the Torah. It isn’t just law. The Torah is the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of humanity.

Because most of us don’t have a burning bush experience where God speaks to us directly, we rely on these stories to reveal to us who God is. And we can use words like “righteous,” “just,” “loving,” and “holy” to describe God, but those words only have meaning because we have these stories of what it looks like for God to be righteous, just, loving, and holy. We know who God is because of what God has done.

Who is our God? Our God is a god who creates human beings, not because he needed to, but because God is love. God is a god who creates out of love in order to love. God is a god who calls us his people, and delivers his people out of captivity. And God is a god who uses evil for good.

Come on now, how can you not think about those stories and be happy?!

Do you know who isn’t happy? The wicked. They are like chaff that will blow away. So read your Bible, or else you will cease to exist! Okay, let us remember that this is a Psalm, it was originally written as lyrics that could be set to music and sang. We are essentially looking at a poem here, so we need to look for the main point and not make too many assumptions. I would say that this is a little too binary, as in if you don’t mediate on the scriptures day and night you will be wicked and perish like the chaff in the wind. What if you only meditate on the scripture during the daylight hours? What then?

No, the point of this Psalm is to say that true happiness, true blessedness, can be found when we study the scriptures. And that’s not to say that true happiness and blessedness are found in the text or the way that the words are arranged. No, true happiness and blessedness are found in the God who is revealed to us through the scriptures. It is my argument that those who are truly moved by the scriptures aren’t moved by the laws (awe, don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk…how touching?), the commandments, or the begats. They are moved by the God who is revealed in the Scriptures. The stories are good, but the one who is revealed through the stories is better.

I heard a story this week about a young woman who recently graduated from high school. Like many graduates, this woman received a gift from her parents. After she received her diploma and celebrated with friends and family, her father handed her a package. Wrapped in paper she found a children’s book, which is actually a popular gift for graduates. He father gave her the book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

When the graduate opened the present, she told her father, “Thanks, that’s always been one of my favorites.” And it is cute and encouraging. But it was more than just a cute and encouraging book. The father asked her to open the book and there on page one, the graduate found a personal note from her kindergarten teacher saying what she enjoyed about having her in class and encouraging her in her studies. The note was signed and dated with the year that the graduate had finished kindergarten. Obviously, her father had been working on this gift for a while; thirteen years, to be exact. Then, on the next page, she found a note from her first grade teacher, signed and dated when she finished first grade. And so it went, right through her high school career, and her senior-year homeroom teacher. Page after page this graduate found encouraging words and affirmations from the people who had invested their time in her academic career over the last thirteen years of her life.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a good book, maybe even a great book, written by a great author. But what really made that copy special wasn’t the rhyming words or the catchy rhythm. What made that books special was that it revealed to this young woman that she was loved and appreciated by her teachers. And even more so, I would say that it revealed that she was loved and appreciated by her father who had done all of this for her, each year seeking out these teachers to ask one more favor of them. In my mind, the greatest thing about this story is that through his actions, the character and the love of the father are revealed.

What makes our Bibles special and worthy of our mediation? And how does meditating on scripture make us happy? Yes, it is at times beautifully written and poetic, and yes, I believe that the writers were inspired by God. But it is special because it reveals a God who loves us and appreciates us, even more so than the father in the other story. The Bible is a story of God’s actions, and God’s actions reveal who God is.

In this sermon series we are also going to look at some of the challenges that each form of revelation of God has. To understand the challenge that we face when doing theology just from the Bible we need to look as some history.

Through much of what we call “Modernity” the Bible has taken a back seat in religious discussions. This is in part because Christians during this period were looking for verifiable facts about God. Think of the scientific method. You make a hypothesis, you test the hypothesis, and you assess the outcome. It is only through observation that you can “prove” something to be true. And since we can’t prove a lot of things that we find in the Bible to be true, many people set it aside as a second or third option for doing theology. Miracles? Can’t prove them, so some will say that they probably didn’t happen. What about the resurrection and deity of Jesus? Well, Jesus said some good things and seemed to be a good person, but we can’t prove that he was the son of God or that he rose from the grave, so modernity would say “let’s not start there.” One of the best examples we have is that of Thomas Jefferson, who famously cut up his Bible, removing references to miracles and anything else that didn’t fit his modern way of thinking. Jefferson and others like him believed in God, but not necessarily the God of the Bible.

For a couple hundred years, people moved away from the unverifiable teachings of the Bible, but what was left? Nature and reason. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a surge in Natural Theology and Reason. I’ve spoken before of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. One of Barth’s major influences on theology was his rejection of Natural Theology and Reason when doing theology. For Barth, theology must focus on the revelation of God found in Scriptures.

One of Barth’s contemporary theologians, Emil Brunner, wrote an essay in 1934 called “Nature and Grace” where he presented a soft version of Natural Theology. Brunner didn’t outright endorse Natural Theology, but he found some value in it. Barth responded with an essay of his own, which was simply titled “Nein!” And of course, it sounds even angrier in German than English.

Barth provided a necessary swing to the proverbial pendulum. When theologians were focusing exclusively on Natural Theology and Reason and neglecting the Bible, Barth said “Nein!” Barth’s voice was needed, and continues to be influential to this day. Remember that when Barth was writing his critiques of Natural Theology he was also witnessing the rise of the Nazi party in neighboring Germany. The Nazis used the concept of “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism,” each theories derived from observing nature, to justify the Holocaust. Barth, who was the main author of the Barmen Declaration, was eventually kicked out of Germany, and forced to leave his teaching position because he refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler.

But as is often the case, his reaction was probably an overreaction. This is almost humorous because the Bible itself says things like, “Come, let us reason together,” in Isaiah 1:18, and as we read in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Reason and Natural Theology are not bad; please don’t be unreasonable! And toward the end of his life, Karl Barth softened a bit on Natural Theology and offered a bit of Natural Theology himself.

I used the metaphor of a compass and a map last week. I believe that Natural Theology, finding God in creation and other observable things is like a compass. A compass will point us in the right direction, but it won’t give us all of the necessary details. A compass will point you toward your destination, but I may walk right into a canyon on the way! No, we need the compass to find our direction, and the map to lead us. Next week we will look at our destination, for it is in Jesus Christ that we find the clearest revelation of who God is.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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