The Word of God

Lent 3       February 28, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-11

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

There is a great thirst in our world. At least, I believe there is. A deep longing that springs from parched souls, a fundamental need, a hunger for something that satisfies. It is, I believe, a hunger and thirst for the Word of God.

Now that is already a faith statement, which is not at all self-evident. Most people probably wouldn’t see it that way. First of all, many people wouldn’t even say that they are thirsty. Many people lead apparently well-adjusted and reasonable happy lives without being aware of any kind of deep longing for religion or whatever. And sure, who am I to question anyone’s well-adjusted happiness? But I would simple observe that you don’t always know when you are thirsty. Apparently the hiking trails around the Grand Canyon have signs posted regularly that say: “Take a drink. You are thirsty, whether you know it or not.” It seems in the dry desert air one get quickly dehydrated, without being conscious of thirst. Similarly, elementary psychology tells us that we are not always conscious of our own deepest needs and longings. It is possible to live an apparently well-adjusted life, until some pressure or change suddenly reveals a deep longing, an unfulfilled need.

What we don’t recognize in ourselves, it may be easier to recognize in others. Perhaps you see it differently, but for me a quick look around our society shows a restless longing, a discontent that doesn’t seem to find satisfaction. There is the constant drive of consumerism, the need to acquire more and better things –
(Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?)
And how expertly the advertising industry sniffs out and exploits this hidden hunger, puts its finger on our deepest insecurities. There is the desperate search for love, for emotional affirmation. There is the energy some people put into a quest for power and influence and ever more money than what they need. There are the people who can’t seem to help putting other people down. There are the addictions all around us: to drugs or alcohol, to sex and pornography, to gambling. There are, all around us, the casualties of this thirst, people whose lives are broken by some deep inner dissatisfaction they probably couldn’t even name.

Can we name this dissatisfaction? Is there not a certain arrogance in naming what other people need? Is that not their business and their right, to define their own lives? Well, yes, all of this is true. It would be arrogant to believe we have all the answers that other people need. People can find satisfaction only when they have named their own need, and if we want to help others, we can’t come with ready-made answers – we need to listen to them, and to help them to listen to their own hearts. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have ideas about the world in general, theories about what this world needs.

But to suggest, as I did at the beginning, that the thirst this world has is for the word of God – well, that may sound improbable to most people. Even many of us here, I have no doubt, will be a bit sceptical about whether that really names the deep longings of humanity. Because that sounds like I am saying that what people need is more religion, more reading the Bible, more coming to church, and that will fix everything that is wrong with the world. And that sounds just a bit lame, a bit of a stale solution, to many of us here. And I agree – that is certainly not what I mean. I am sure that more religion might help a lot of people – but that is not what I mean when I suggest that our thirst is for the Word of God.

More probable to many of us, I suspect, is the insight that what people thirst for is to be loved. To be valued, to be affirmed in a world that treats them like nobodies. To feel the self-worth and self-confidence that comes only from knowing as a child that one is deeply loved and treasured. That, surely, is at the heart of all the thirsting and longing that drives so many lives around us. Consumerism, or ambition, or bullying, or addictions – surely these are all ways of trying to fill the same hole: the feeling of being unloved and unlovable, of not being valued or worthy.

And I would agree. This is exactly what I mean when I say that what this world is thirsting for is the Word of God. That is what the Word of God is at heart: not the Bible, not church talk, not religion; but most fundamentally, the voice of God, the voice of the very universe, if you like, speaking to each one of us the truth of our lives: you are loved, you are valued, you are precious.

Is that not a very peculiar and unorthodox and modern and liberal understanding of the expression “the Word of God”? Not at all. It goes back to St. Paul’s understanding of the Word of the cross. It goes back to the insight of Luther and the other Reformers that we are saved by grace, that it is not our own accomplishments, but the free life-giving love of God that gives our life value. Ultimately, it goes back to the promise of Isaiah, speaking comfort and love to an exiled people, and to the teachings and life of Jesus himself, bringing God’s love to the poor nobodies of Galilee.

We get confused about the expression “Word of God”. Most often, we use it of the Bible. But strictly speaking, this is not quite accurate. If the Bible really were the Word of God, then every word would have come straight from the mouth of God, and would have to be given complete and literal authority. This is fundamentalism – it is one of the great heresies of modernity. For orthodox Christianity, there is only one word of God in the strictest, most literal sense: that is Jesus Christ. Jesus is God’s final and definitive word. It is a word of solidarity, in his coming among us to share our human life; it is a word of forgiveness and valuing, in his gentle acceptance of the broken and the marginalised; it is a word of ultimate love, in his self-giving to share the most brutal of deaths. If we are looking for a word to name all that Jesus was, the word is gospel. Jesus was the word of God made flesh; the word of God spoken, the word that proclaims the word made flesh, is gospel. And we are a people of the gospel, first and foremost, not a people of the Bible.

It is because we are a people of the gospel that we take the Bible so seriously. It is our only source for what is most important in our faith, the faith story we live by. Only in the Bible do we learn of God’s particular relationship with Israel, his choosing of an obscure people to be a sign of his love, a sign of the relationship God chooses to enter into with humankind. Only in the Bible do we read of Jesus, do we hear his words and learn the story of his coming among us. And so the Bible is infinitely important to what we are about here. But it is important not for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel. It is not in and of itself the Word of God – but when we read it together as a community, in the presence of the living Spirit of God, it becomes for us the Word of God. Not as words on a page, which in themselves are dead, but as the living Word of a living God, speaking the gospel to us, telling us that we are loved and precious and called to be the people we were created to be.

And the same thing goes for the words we use here in our Sunday liturgy, for the prayers and eucharist and sermon, for all the churchy stuff we do. None of this do we do for its own sake, none of it is holy and important in itself: but all of it can become for us the living Word of God, when we listen in the Spirit and hear it as the words of love that the living force of the universe is speaking directly to us.

It is an important distinction. Remember the thirst around us. What will satisfy it? If we are clear about the gospel at the core of all we do: the gospel of the creator, that says we are loved and cherished by the universe, as God don’t make no junk; the gospel of the Christ, that tells us that there is nowhere, even in the greatest loneliness and persecution and guilt, that God does not follow us and share our pain – then we can see that this may in fact be the good news that we long for in our deepest hearts, the love that can cure our sickness and satisfy our hunger.

But if we don’t keep our eye on the gospel pure, then it gets mixed up in all the other stuff that rightly turns people off. When we speak blithely of the Bible as the Word of God, we are asking people to accept the patriarchy and the violence, the slaughter of the Amalekites, the fevered fantasies of Revelation, as being what they really thirst for. And of course they turn away. When we speak of the church as the answer to their needs, they see our weaknesses, our staleness and lack of courage and vision. They see words they can’t understand, and dingy buildings, and cranky people, and self-righteousness, and the religious right, and the nun who rapped their knuckles in grade school. And of course they aren’t interested.

And so it is important to remind ourselves again and again of why we are really here, of what has touched our hearts and assuaged our thirst. We need to keep the gospel before our eyes, the true Word of God that is healing and life-giving amidst all the religious talk.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.