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The Authority of Scripture

[Note: The second Sunday in Advent is a traditional time for the authority and usefulness of scripture to be emphasised as part of our preparation for the celebration of the coming of the Word in the flesh. This sermon was prepared for this Sunday in 1995. A more recent 1998 sermon Scripture: Christ the key to interpretation was based on a similar text from a different epistle 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. That 1998 sermon for Ordinary 29 was more concerned with the method or general strategy of interpretation, while this one from Advent 2 in 1995 is more about the appropriate attitude with which scripture should be regarded; but the two are closely related, as method is affected by what we believe about the authority of scripture, while for many people its authority can only be seriously considered if we have an acceptable method of interpretation. The sermon which follows is addressed particularly to such reservations which in their extreme form have resulted in the subjugation of scripture to contemporary human wisdom. DB]

When the apostles and evangelists of the first century began to spread the Good News (the Gospel) to the ends of earth they often quoted from more ancient scriptures to show who Jesus was and to help people understand what God had to say to them through him. So by reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament, they encouraged people to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah whom God had promised long ago to send. They even used the old scriptures to show how the Messiah should have been expected to suffer, something which the Jews at the time of Jesus had not anticipated because they had not linked the suffering servant of God with the great king who would win a glorious victory for them. That is the background for Paul's remark to the Romans:-

The Old Testament in the New

He had just quoted from the Psalms to show how the suffering of Christ for others was part of the old message from God:

Here Paul is quoting from Psalm 69:9. In that psalm the faithful servant of God was described as one who has borne reproach and was made ashamed, suffering insults and made the subject of mockery. People remembering how Jesus had been insulted and how he suffered in the way he died would see how his humiliation, far from being a sign of God's rejection, was rather what should have been expected if the scriptures had been understood. It is similar to way that Philip used the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah to show that the Messiah had to suffer. It was from Isaiah 53 that the Ethiopian was reading when Philip was led to approach him and explain who this passage was about: Indeed Jesus himself used the Hebrew scriptures to explain the same thing. On the day of the resurrection, as he walked unrecognized with the two on the road to Emmaus: Later, after they had recognised him when he broke bread with them, and when he had disappeared: You can see that they were excited by the way that he helped them to understand from the Jewish scriptures what had happened at his own death a few days before in Jerusalem.

Not only on that occasion but quite often during his earthly ministry of teaching and healing, Jesus justified what he was saying by reference to the ancient scriptures which the Jewish people had received. He did not simply declare things on his own authority, although he could do that and sometimes did; he was more inclined to show how his message about God was the same as God had revealed to others who came before him, and especially Moses, the psalms and the prophets like Isaiah. His God and Father was the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, for he is the same God, yesterday, today and forever. He is trustworthy and reliable so that what he has to reveal about himself in Jesus is consistent with what he has revealed of himself in other ways. He was often misunderstood and there were many false teachers and people struggled in their relationship with God to learn his ways, but he was always faithful to them, and they knew it.

Jesus himself is the Word of God

We believe that when Jesus came saying "I am the way, and the truth and the life," [John 14:6] he was in himself, in what he taught and what he did, a true representative of God, the very embodiment of what God had to say to the world. So we accept the witness of John the evangelist who said that in Jesus the Word of God became flesh:

It is Christ himself who is the Word of God. Through his becoming a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Word of God was made accessible to humankind. As John says in his first letter: John then was writing of the word of life that he had seen and heard and touched so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:4). That is very similar to what Paul said about the purpose of the old scriptures in his letter to the Romans when he hoped that by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4). So it came about that what John and Paul themselves wrote had the same purpose of encouragement that they had recognised in the Jewish scriptures, and out of the experience of the church such writing came to be valued and honoured in a similar way. The church learned to recognise those witnesses to Christ whose account could be trusted, in particular the four gospels and Paul's letters being accepted as having the same authority as the Old Testament by about the year 200, although it was not until the fifth century that there was general agreement on a list of books which corresponds to the New Testament as we know it. There was nothing magical about the way the authority of the scriptures was recognised: it grew out of the experience of the faithful in the life of the church.

The teaching of the church about scripture

What, then, do we today believe about the scriptures? The official teaching of the Uniting Church is contained in our Basis of Union. [The relevant paragraphs are printed on the back of the order of service and I would urge you study this statement carefully. See appendix.] In the Uniting Church we place a strong emphasis on the authority of scripture. It is an essential part of our Methodist and Reformed heritage and of our membership in the universal church. Our official position is very strong, but I fear that the scriptures are not given the attention they ought to be given today by many members of the church. They are not read sufficiently, there is too little study of the scriptures in our fellowship meetings, and there is not enough testing of what we believe by reference to the scriptures. People are far too ready to test scripture by what they desire and what they learn from people around them, rather than the other way around, testing what they desire and know otherwise by reference to scripture.

For many people in the modern world the whole idea is unacceptable that there could be any authority in matters of belief and value apart from their own limited understanding of what seems right for them at the time. That cannot be for Christians, because our starting point is belief in Jesus as the Christ, as Lord, as God himself, the Word made flesh. We believe that the truth about God and his purpose in the creation, including his purpose for us, is to be seen in the man Jesus. That is, we look to an external objective reality, to an actual historical figure. We are not free to invent our own God, or even to make up our own picture of Jesus. Although our personal knowledge of him is gained through faith as we share in the fellowship of the church, we need to discover as much as we can of what he was really like, and for that we need reliable witnesses, people like John and Matthew, and the evangelists who wrote down their memories, and to Paul another apostle, that is to people who can tell us what they saw and how it affected those who knew Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem. The record of those witnesses is in the New Testament; and as we have already seen, while the New Testament writers looked back to Christ remembering what had happened, the Old Testament looked forward to him. That is what matters: whether we are looking back to him in the memory of the apostles and evangelists in the New Testament, or forward in the Old, Christ himself is the Word is all its fullness; the Old and New Testaments witness to him; and that is why the scriptures are important and authoritative for us.

John the Baptist linking old and new

John the Baptist, whom we honour at this time of the church year, is a good figure to remind us of the relevance of the old as well as the new. Although he belonged to the old way before Jesus came, he recognised Jesus as the Christ and formed a bridge from the old to the new.

When John the Baptist came to "prepare the way of the Lord", he spoke in the way the old prophets had spoken. He was the last and greatest of the prophets of the old covenant, that is of those whose relationship with God followed the witness of Moses. He even look like the ancient prophets and was identified especially with Elijah another stern and lonely figure of the desert. Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40 to identify him with the lonely figure in the desert:

compare As God prepared the way like a highway in the desert for the coming of a conqueror over the captors of Israel, so John the Baptist was seen as preparing the way for the Messiah who would liberate people finally from the powers of sin and death. When he called people to repentance, he called them to return to the covenant relationship that Moses and prophets believed God was giving to the people of Israel [Exodus 19:3-6 and 24:3-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34]. When Jesus began preaching in Galilee he had a very similar message: There was a clear continuity between John the Baptist and Jesus. Indeed Matthew (4:2) tells us that Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee when he heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, apparently carrying on his work proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. He built upon the old covenant, but as John and Jeremiah (31:31) had anticipated what was to come, he took the work beyond it, eventually establishing a new covenant or new relationship between God and the people he called to follow him. That new relationship was established in his death and resurrection; as he said at the last supper the cup represents his sacrifice establishing the new covenant: It is sometimes asked whether if Christ is the fulfilment of the message and the plan of God, and all we need to know is to be found in him, why we should be concerned with the Old Testament, the witness to the Old Covenant. Are the Hebrew scriptures not supplanted by the record about Christ? After all there is some very primitive material in parts of the Old Testament. It is true that the people of Israel continued to learn more about God as they lived in a relationship with him over a period of a thousand years or so which is covered by the books of the Old Testament, that is we can discern signs of a developing understanding, and Paul tells us that gentile believers are not bound by all the rules of the old law. But the point is that Christ is the key. Everything is to be tested by reference to him, and both the old and new scriptures help us to understand him.

How do we interpret scripture? Christ is the key.

We cannot take the time now to see in detail how we interpret scripture to be faithful to the one God who is revealed through an enormously varied range of literature including law, history, poetry and philosophy in several different cultures over many centuries. It is something that I try to do week by week. Consistency is important in spite of the differences and so is comprehensiveness, so that we are not free to resolve problems by choosing what we like and rejecting whatever does not fit with our present day understanding. It can be hard work sometimes. We need to be ready to learn from the scholars and especially to take time to learn by sharing our understanding in the fellowship of believers. The Bible is not a simple text book which can be learned by a person studying alone, nor is it a book of rules which you can look up to find what to do in any situation. Not every important moral question is dealt with there and we need to develop an understanding of God's will which goes beyond simple rules. For example, a university chaplain told me of a student who came to her for help because she could not find anything in the Bible about abortion: how do you resolve a question like that when the scriptures do not give you a rule? And if you could find one, how would you know that it applied to you since some rules in the Bible appear to be limited to people in particular times and places, for example, rules like the dietary laws which Peter learned need not limit him in his fellowship with people who not Jews?

When you see that there is room for interpretation, and that not everything might apply to us, there is always the great danger of picking and choosing what pleases us and of relying on external secular ideas that happen to be popular in our culture at the time. So in a society that favours freedom of the individual to the extent that almost any kind of sexual practice is permitted, it is easy to say, "Oh well, those old rules don't apply to me. They belong to a different culture far removed from the way we live in modern times." I do not believe that you can be a faithful Christian with that attitude. We are required to test what we believe and teach by referring to scripture and we are not free to chose only those parts that happen to be consistent with our own way of life. It cannot be made to fit easily and we must struggle with scripture to discern what God has to say to us; but if we do so as an act in faith together we will be shown the way. It is Jesus himself who is the key. All our interpretations must be consistent with what we know of him, and of course, while the scriptures are the primary witness to him and whatever we say of him must be tested by scripture, we do know him in his risen power in other ways in the fellowship of believers, in prayer, in the sacraments and in the service of people in need.

Later in the service we will pray a prayer in poetry written by Bruce Prewer entitled The Word within the Word. You will see that it is addressed to Christ who is the Word within the word, the Word witnessed to the scriptures and the Word whose coming in the flesh we now look forward to celebrating at Christmas. When we say the Bible is the word of God, we mean it in a secondary indirect sense because the Bible is the record of witnesses to God's message and it points us to Jesus Christ who is the primary Word of God, the Word who was made flesh.

As the Uniting Church says in our Basis of Union:

As Prewer puts it,

he is
the Word from the beginning
speaking as One who has authority,
word of life, ...

the Word is a lamp,
guide to our feet, beacon to our path,
word of light, ...

He is the
word of truth,
the Word that dwells richly in us,
and that never returns empty,
word that brings faith:

For the Word made flesh,
glorious Word who dwells among us,
word of love:
we praise you, Lord most high.

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Appendix: The Word of God and the Biblical Witness -- What the Church says:-

Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. [Para. 4]

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures. [Para.5]

The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God's ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. [Para. 11]

[From the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia]

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