Thursday, December 17, 2020

Taking the Bible seriously - not literally

Genesis 49.2, 8–10 and Matthew 1.1–17

It has long been a practice of mine to preach, consistently, from the lectionary.  Other ministers, quite justifiably, tend to choose readings which they believe are most relevant to the needs of the congregation they serve, at that moment in time.  But sometimes, just sometimes, the result can be a fairly limited diet of Scripture. 

The lectionary, on the other hand, is deliberately created to give us a broad overview of the principle Scriptures – making sure that we’ve heard, over two and three-year cycles (weekdays or Sundays), all the main stories, and the main theological principles.

But I have to confess that when I first opened the lectionary to today’s reading, my heart sank!  What on earth can one say about a long list of names of the ancestors of Jesus.  And how on earth can I read them out, without tripping over my tongue?!  But, as you’ve just heard, I decided to stay true to my self-discipline of just preaching from the lectionary! 

If you have a really good memory, and if you’ve been listening to my daily readings from Luke’s Gospel, then you may have noticed something quite intriguing about the genealogy I’ve just read from Matthew.  It’s this – Matthew and Luke’s genealogies are quite, quite different.  Right from the question of the name of Joseph’s father.  It was either Jacob (according to Matthew), or Heli, according to Luke.  And from there, traced back through time, both genealogies are remarkably dis-similar.

This is a conundrum which has puzzled many bible scholars over the centuries – especially those who start from the premise of believing that the bible is the ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallible’ word of God’.  It’s a bit of a problem for those who claim that the Bible is a reliable historical (and indeed scientific) document.  Various theories have been advanced over the years, including the idea that Luke’s genealogy is actually Mary’s (despite the fact that it plainly starts with Joseph and his father).  Another idea is that Matthew’s gives us a list of royal ancestors (to prove Jesus’ descent from King David), whereas Luke gives us an actual list of biological ancestors.  But none of these explanations really cut the mustard – and there is no reliable evidence for any of these theories.

So for me, these lists of names, right there near the beginning of two of the Gospels point me to a bigger truth.  And it’s this:  never make the mistake of thinking of the Bible as infallible, or inerrant.  It simply isn’t – there are far too many internal inconsistencies, contradictory statements, and varying accounts of the same events.    If this were a Bible Study, instead of a sermon, we could have great fun now going through the Bible and examining some of those inconsistencies for ourselves.  Have you ever noticed, for example, that the second chapter of Genesis lists the order in which God created things…and that it’s a completely different order to the first chapter of Genesis?  But, tempted as I am to prove my point….this is not the place, and we don’t have the time.

Instead, let me quote from one of my favourite theological thinkers, John Dominic Crossan, who said this:  “My point….is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally”.  Crossan is referring to ancient texts as symbolic.  He understands, and teaches us, that ancient people were far less concerned than modern people with actual history.  They told stories – sometimes based on real events, and sometimes just pure fiction - in order to inspire, to teach, to warn and to encourage.  Another modern theologian, Rob Bell, teaches that it is not important whether something happened.  What’s important is that it HAPPENS – today, to us, to me.  The stories of Scripture help us to examine and understand OUR lives.  These stories transform US.

So, if you are one of the many people who struggle with the question of whether the Bible is true in any meaningful, historical respect, let me encourage you.  If you are someone who wonders whether the Virgin Birth really matters, or what the precise meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross really was, or whether Jesus really is ‘coming again’ despite 2000 years of apparent unwillingness…let me stand with you.  Let me invite you to move, with me, BEYOND the questions of historical accuracy, and into the much deeper questions of what these stories have to teach us, about how to live today in the light of the Gospel.  Let me encourage you to take the bible seriously not literally.

As we move inexorably towards Christmas, once more, ask yourself what your life would look life if truly lived in the light of the Gospel stories.  What might a life look like if it was framed entirely in notions of living simply, generously, outwardly, selflessly?  What kind of difference in the world could such a life make?  What would life be like if the whole of our society recognised the poverty of the stable, the desperation of the flight into Egypt, the abuse of power of Herod, the generosity of strangers, and the proclamation of peace by the Angels.  I actually don’t care very much which aspects of this story are literally true.  I only care that these stories, if we will let them sink deep into our hearts, have the power to reshape a dying world.


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