A Summary of the Bible
A sermon based on Galatians 5:1, 13-25
given at Mount Vernon, OH on August 2, 2015 *(2013)
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As you may have read I’ve been working on a confirmation course and an adult Christian Literacy class. So I decided this morning to try and summarize in one sermon the Bible or at least the story line that leads to Christianity’s prevailing theology of the of God of love’s incarnation, especially in humanity.
Before I get to the summary. I have a few fun Bible questions I found on the internet about Noah: Why didn’t they play cards on the Ark? Because Noah was standing on the deck. What animal could Noah not trust? The Cheetah. On the Ark, Noah probably got milk from the cows. What did he get from the ducks? Quackers.
The Bible aptly begins with a creation story addressing legitimate age old questions like: How did all of this get here? How did we get here? Who were the first man and woman? And how can we get along?
Genesis describes a wonderful beginning where out of chaos God speaks creation– including us– into being. The very voice of God echos in the heavens and down to earth in the oceans and lands and living things. God declares all creation good.
From the very start God’s Word creates good. And as we say in the U.C.C., “God is still speaking.” The Hebrew Scriptures zoom in from the universal down to the earthly, critter, and human creation.
We are told that humans come to life infused with the very breath of God, and bear God’s image. See, like royal emissaries of the ancient world carried their ruler’s image to show like a badge that they were his agent, we are God’s emissaries in creation, carrying our ruler’s image and we are suppose to act as care-taking agents for God. 1
Genesis also explains how we wandered from that responsibility. The peace of creation is disrupted when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Humans learn they can choose right or wrong. And ever since the peace of Eden’s is either lost or recovered by human choice.
The Bible attempts to teach us how to take care of and to relate to creation, by choosing the best way back to peace. It’s about God’s desire for well being and our role in carrying that desire out with choices for good. It all boils down to our relationship with God: God in heaven, God in creation, God in ourselves, God in each other.
Sadly Genesis’ first story of human relations is about the first siblings, Cain and Abel, have the first fight and it’s a religious fight over who’s offering matters most. Cain kills Abel, so it is also the first story of murder. East of Eden the first choice over right and wrong doesn’t go well.
The Bible launches into more and more stories about choices. Evil choices of violence and lack of care for others gets so bad we are told God rebooted creation with a flood drowning all but Noah’s family and an ark loaded with animals in order to begin again.
But creation is not all that is rebooted in the Noah story, God who had been imagined as unloving enough to destroy all but a remnant of life, also changes in the story.
“The post-flood God” covenants with all of creation to never destroy it again– and offers as proof the image of the destructive warrior God hanging up his bow in the sky promising to never use it again. That’s the story of the rain-bow and it sits there still as a reminder after each storm that Yahweh does not lash out at us. God’s re-imagined as the God of love.
I’d like to report that the human reboot worked out, but it didn’t. Humans continue to make choices of both good and evil. Relationships with God in the universe, creation and others suffer and benefit – depending on the choice humans make.
After the flood God tells humanity to spread to the ends of the earth. Instead they settle down and build a Tower of Babel metaphorically poking God in the eye with human disobedience and self-importance. This time the result of not choosing good isn’t destruction of the world or humankind, it’s destruction of the Tower of Babel and (this pun’s not mine) there’s creation of a babble of language causing humans to disperse to the ends of the earth.
The dispersion leads to relationships with one another through tribal leaders. Patriarchs and matriarchs rule the fledgling communities of God. Abraham and Sarah are the first. God covenants to make them blessings to all nations. And they make mistakes like the rest of us, but God sticks with them – even as they stick with God. The result is they and their son Isaac and grandson Jacob lead God’s people.
Later when famine strikes, God’s people are rescued by Abraham and Sarah’s rejected great grandson Joseph who, while bullied and discarded by his brothers, nonetheless becomes a leader in Egypt who’s able to forgive and lead Egypt and all of them to safety.
God’s people then reside in Egypt and long after Joseph is gone they end up enslaved. God appears in a burning bush and chooses a royally raised runaway Hebrew named Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery and into the wilderness toward God’s law and the Promised Land.
God’s people squabble and back slide, yet keep following God and Moses. They eventually adopt God’s commandments to guide them. Most of the commandments were meant to help humans chose correctly and find the way to peaceful relationships and peace, how to be care-full emissaries of God.
There are actually over 600 commandments in God’s law, the most familiar being the ten Moses brought down on stone tablets from Mount Sinai. Those Ten Commandments are: (1) have no other gods; (2) make no graven images; (3) don’t take God’s name in vain; (4) keep the Sabbath holy; (5) honor your parents; (6) don’t murder; (7) don’t commit adultery; (8) don’t steal; (9) don’t bear false witness; and (10) don’t covet your neighbor’s things. Two other commandments from the Moses’ story that become very, very important are love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. The Ten Commandments were kept in the Ark of the Covenant a sacred container stored in a sacred tent called the Tabernacle.
After forty years of wandering the Hebrews reached a place where they could see the Promised Land, but Moses and his generation die before they get there.
Joshua then leads the new generation to the Promised Land. Joshua was a great leader. When he died the Hebrews return to making not so good and even evil choices.
Over the years they’re led by fifteen tribe-like chiefs known as judges. The most famous are Gideon, Deborah, Sampson and Samuel. The judges help defend and unite the semi-nomadic tribes, trying in varying degrees of success to keep God at the forefront.
Eventually the Hebrews decide to settle down and they ask Samuel (the last judge) to let them have a king. Samuel resists wanting God to be their only king, but eventually with God’s approval Samuel anoints Saul as the first Hebrew king.
During Saul’s reign one of his musicians, a young shepherd named David armed only with a sling-shot defeats in a winner-take-all fight Goliath, a mighty giant. Later David becomes king and sets into place plans for a permanent “tabernacle,” a temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant and to worship God.
David doesn’t build the Temple, but he does well, that is until he covets Bathsheba and has her husband killed in order to marry her. After those evil choices David’s reign experiences turmoil, including civil war with his son Absalom. David eventually wins the civil war, but deeply laments Absalom’s death.
When David dies another of his sons, Solomon, becomes king. Solomon builds the Temple and it becomes the center of worship for Judaism. But, Solomon fails to follow God’s way of justice and care. His reigns is marked by oppressive acts and the worshiping of other gods. The kingdom is in so much turmoil that after Solomon dies it splits in two, the north becomes known as Israel and the south, Judah.
In 721 B.C. the northern kingdom of Israel is conquered by Assyria. The southern kingdom of Judah (which includes Jerusalem) continues on until it is conquered and the Temple’s destroyed by Babylon in 586 B.C. Most of the elite are then exiled to Babylon. The conquering of God’s people, the exile and the destruction of the Temple shakes the faith of the Hebrews to its very core.
There had been prophets who spoke truth to power throughout Hebrew history. They called and called to leaders to worship God alone and to care for creation and people, most especially the oppressed, the alien, the poor and the needy. Some of the greatest words in the Bible come from the prophets. Amos prophesied that God wants caring actions not empty worship and songs. It’s Amos who says “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In one of this community’s most beloved verses, the prophet Micah also admonished that God doesn’t want empty ritual and offerings noting “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Isaiah famously prophesied that when people turn to God then God “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Isaiah also has probably the most famous prophesy of the coming of a Messiah to save God’s people.
In light of the prophets and the earth shattering reality of the Babylonian conquest of their country the Hebrew people are led to understand and experience God in a new way.
Babylon is eventually defeated by Persia and the exiles are allowed to return home, and rebuild the Temple. During and after the Exile Bible stories and texts are heavily influenced and edited by a priestly group of writers who understood that the exile created serious concerns for God’s people.
God’s people sensed being barren, without heirs, being crowded out, being subservient, and being dominated by other nations. So the priests address these concerns with a theology summed up in the creation story at Genesis 1:28 (quote): “God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.'” (end quote) 2 That verse addresses the concerns arising from the Exile: “be fruitful” refutes barrenness; “multiply” refutes heirlessness; “fill the earth” refutes crowdedness; “subdue” refutes subserviency; and “having dominion” refutes domination. 3
Out of the Exile experience comes an understanding–the re-imagining– of God, as one who sides with the oppressed and calls people to hope. And God is understood to be in charge in ways earthly kings never are.
All of this leads us to the New Testament, a story of God’s ways incarnate in humanity shown by Jesus who confronted and defied the earthly kingdom of Rome, its king (Caesar), and Caesar’s appointed secular and religious elite.
The New Testament Gospels remember two Jewish prophets, John the Baptist who’s revolutionary prophetic movement called Jews to symbolically re-take the Promised Land even as he mediates God in the Jordan washing sins away with baptism. John’s criticizing Rome and usurping religious power Rome reserved for its Temple-elite. John’s movement draws crowds and the ire of Rome and leads to his execution.
Before John’s execution Jesus, a peasant from Nazareth was baptized into John’s movement, and ever since Christians are baptized into Jesus’ movement.
When John is executed Jesus takes over and creates a movement that does more than symbolically protest, it’s taken to people and it becomes love– God–in action. Jesus teaches male and female followers the practice of going out to help end what ails the world– to transform and save with loving words and healing actions.
Jesus’ movement is simple and brilliant and very, very attractive. He reaches back to Moses’ commandments and declares two are greater than all the others: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. He challenges Rome’s ethos of elitism. In the Jesus movement everyone gets invited to the table to eat, to be healed, to be forgiven and to be included. Everyone gets love. Our open communion table and community strive to reenact Jesus’ table and community. Here’s how I sum up Jesus’ teachings: God is love; believe in love; love, love; and be love. Or to put it more traditionally: Christianity re imagines God incarnate– as being experienced through Jesus’ words and deeds . . . AND our own words and deeds!
Caesar’s emissaries, Pilate, Herod, and the religious elite, sought to crush Jesus’ revolution of love and compassion for all because it empowered people, circumvented the temple and challenged the elite ethos by preaching all should have enough and be loved. That’s dangerous stuff. Jesus has one last supper with his followers – which we remember at communion– then Rome catches and crucifies Jesus thinking it killed him and his way (as do Jesus’ followers at first).
Jesus is dead. But something happens, three days later on Easter Jesus is experienced as still existing, still living, still being. Jesus’ love was so great God vindicates him. He’s resurrected, existing for all time as a transformative experiential reality. Love lives.
Soon the followers of Jesus re-band and refuse to acknowledge Caesar as lord, as Rome wanted. In protest they give Jesus titles reserved by Rome for Caesar. Jesus the crucified criminal is called “born of virgin,” “Son of God,” “Prince of Peace,” “Lord” and “Savior.” Caesar may reign over an earthly empire with a violent peace, but, Jesus reigns over heaven and earth – the entire universe– with a loving peace. The titles stick and are Jesus’ still.
The New Testament has three basic parts. The gospels depict Jesus’ life. The Book of Acts records post-Easter Jesus Movement stories. The letters of Paul and remaining books record early interpretations of Jesus’ Way and evidence the struggles of being church.
A New Testament truth develops that Jesus life, death, resurrection and Way can be utilized to save us from a lesser way of being. In this way Jesus is understood to be the Messiah.
Christians at the earliest stages summed up Jesus teachings. Paul does this in our lesson: “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Scripture (the law) is about care and relationship, about God’s emissaries (us) providing love equal to the love we expect to get and give ourselves.
Paul also notes in our reading today that the fruit of the Spirit “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.”
The prevailing arc of the Bible story is about the hope of humankind. The Bible aims us, like Jesus, toward love, that is to incarnate God, to be God’s emissaries in the here and now. We can do this by seeking and working to provide –as Paul calls it– the fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.”
The Bible is not to be worshiped, it is not God, but as a whole to does attempt to show us through human experiences of God how to choose good over evil, how to love love and be love. In short, the Bible points to a path by which humans can find peace, individually and corporately. By having a caring, loving relationship with God: God in heaven, God in creation, especially God in humankind.
The Bible brings into the relief the good news that this path of Jesus’ can be walked by our learning and teaching and living the simple message that boils down to: God is love; believe in love; love, love; and be love.
* Based in part on a sermon I first preached in 2013
1. Bracke, November 26, 2003, Course Outline, 2 and related lecture; Brueggemann & Wolff, The Vitality of Old Testament Tradition, (Atlanta: John Knox Press (1975), 103-104.
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