A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 27, 2013.
1The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 3There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, 5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. 6Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
7The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; 8the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; 9the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 11Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. 13Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Somehow, we believe that all creation exists for much more than feeding, mating, working, aging, and dying. Humans somehow sense, and are convinced, that the universe is not merely mechanical. The universe is moral!
We have documented our convictions about the meaning of our existence in Scripture. Because we believe that we live in a moral universe—as opposed to merely a mechanical one—the Psalmist has written, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Somehow, we believe that even nature is infused with moral meaning and messages.
Scripture sets out what humans have learned about our experience in and from a moral universe. Through lessons gleaned across past eras of human experience, varying locations, and changing situations, Scripture prods us to ask, “What does life mean? Why are we here? What is our purpose?”
And Scripture does something more. Scripture declares that the whole universe is governed by something much higher and greater than our private or personal indulgence. The Psalmist wrote that “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Scripture declares that we live before God!
We can read, recite, and memorize Scripture. But what makes Scripture come alive? What happens when Scripture comes alive? What happens when it doesn’t?
Scripture comes alive for us when we act as if we live in a moral universe. Scripture does more than declare that we live in a moral universe. Scripture forces us to either accept that to be true or live as if there is no such thing as morality. Either there is a moral meaning to our existence or there isn’t. If our living is not morally meaningful Scripture is bad beyond being worthless, but is fraudulent—a colossal lie. If there is a moral meaning to our living, Scripture is more than instructive, but points us toward the most fundamental truths about who we are and why we live.
When Scripture comes alive we begin understanding ourselves and everything else—including our words, deeds, and our motives—in moral terms. We do this only because we have embraced a truth: we are moral beings living in a morally-connected universe.
When Scripture comes alive, we understand that what we say, do, and the motives behind our words and deeds somehow affect reality for ourselves and others. We matter to each other. Others matter to us. We are related! Our words, deeds, and motives affect others for better or for worse because we are moral beings together in God’s moral universe.
But Scripture also teaches that we are susceptible to believing and acting as if we aren’t connected. Scripture reminds us that the notion that we aren’t connected is a lie. How we treat nature and the environment matters. How we treat each other as family members and in other social contexts matters. We live in an interdependent moral universe. No person is an island to oneself. We need others.
Scripture ultimately affirms that we are part of a morally interdependent universe accountable to a Power greater than the universe itself, and everything in it, including us! We are not the “big cheese.” We are not in charge. God is!
Yes, we are moral agents and actors. We exercise varying degrees of power within the moral universe and in our relationships to one another. But when Scripture comes alive, we understand that there is a Power before whom the whole universe, and everything and everybody in it, are accountable.
So the Psalmist concludes Psalm 19 with a prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. In other words, “Help me live, O Lord, so that I please you. Teach me. Guide me. Correct me. Save me. I am in your universe. I am part of your creation. Help me to be, like the heavens, an agent and instrument of your glory.”
When Scripture comes alive, we see our entire existence as prayer, offering, and devotion. We understand that life is a constant exercise in worship, be it holy worship of God or the idolatry of self-worship. Either we are living to glorify [be acceptable to] God, the Power before whom the entire universe including everything and everybody are accountable, or we are living to glorify ourselves or something else.
When Scripture comes alive, Jesus comes to life as God’s agent of radical and subversive love, justice, and peace. The person we come to know as Jesus through Scripture wasn’t a rule-bound cleric or a socially disconnected mystic. Jesus wasn’t a self-serving materialist. When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue for worship and read a passage from Isaiah 61, he wasn’t simply performing a religious ritual. Instead, Jesus demonstrated how to fulfill God’s purpose in God’s morally interdependent universe.
The Jesus we meet in Scripture is someone for whom Scripture is alive. Jesus did not view Scripture as merely a body of writings to be read and discussed as part of religious rituals. For him, Scripture was alive with meaning about God’s purpose and our part in it. When Jesus sat down after reading the passage from Isaiah 61 and said to the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he declared that the passage from Isaiah 61 was his mission-statement.
- God had sent him to accomplish a holy purpose in the world.
- God sent him to “bring good news to the poor.”
- God sent him to “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind … and the acceptable year of the Lord.”
- God sent him to “let the oppressed go free.”
When Jesus said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he was telling the congregation that God sent him to do something for God about poverty, injustice, and suffering. God sent Jesus to represent God alongside people held hostage by the forces responsible for that suffering. God sent Jesus to live for God alongside suffering people, advocate for them, and in God’s name and authority challenge the powers and practices responsible for their plight.
When Scripture comes alive for us, we see Jesus as a radical subversive who wasn’t beholden to nor impressed with the status quo. Roman authority did not intimidate Jesus. Jewish tradition did not define him. Jesus wasn’t distracted from God’s mission by materialism or notions of fame and celebrity. He wasn’t in the world simply to get rich and be famous, or be powerful and prestigious. Jesus was in the world to fulfill God’s plan for liberation, justice, and peace.
In other words, Jesus understood that his life was to be a sermon about what God’s love means. Scripture informed Jesus that he was God’s agent and instrument of holy love. Scripture inspired Jesus to live for God, touch for God, speak for God, think with God, and challenge everything in the world for God because Scripture taught Jesus that he was on a mission from God!
Dedication to God and the mission from God set Jesus on a collision course with religious ritualism, social materialism, and political militarism. Devotion to God for Jesus involved confronting the idolatry of human opportunism and self-centeredness that is always the foundation for injustice, oppression, and suffering.
So, even as he died, Jesus was proclaiming good news to a fellow dying prisoner. As he died, Jesus prayed for forgiveness concerning people whose religious ritualism, political opportunism, and social materialism had turned them into social, political, religious, and ethical murderers and thieves.
Scripture was alive for Jesus, but what about us? Are religious people informed by Scripture that is alive when we become addicted to personal comfort and self-indulgence? Are religious people informed by a Scripture that is alive when we reduce salvation to mean private pietism (as in “my personal salvation”)? Can you and I truly follow Jesus without being part of God’s radical and subversive love that puts us, like Jesus, alongside the suffering and oppressed and opposed to the idolatry of our time and place?
Scripture that is alive warns that we will either fulfill God’s radical and subversive mission of love, justice, and peace that the Gospels proclaim concerning Jesus or we will fulfill God’s mission of judgment and condemnation on the idolatry of opportunism and self-centeredness. As followers of Jesus, let us be about God’s business of loving the world. Let us, like Jesus, be so in touch with God’s love, mercy, justice, truth, and peace that we become radical and subversive people on a mission from God because Scripture is alive for us, with us, and in us.
Then we, like Jesus said about himself in that synagogue at Nazareth, will live to fulfill Scripture. Then our living, like the Psalmist said about the heavenly bodies, will be sermons of divine love, truth, justice, and peace that bear witness to the glory of God. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.