“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,…full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
“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 spout, 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.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
In my first year of pastoring my biggest worry was that I would run out of things to say from the pulpit.
Serving a country church near Willmar, Minnesota, I preached every Sunday, midweek Lenten service, and festival day. Nothing in my background had prepared me for the relentless task of cooking up a new sermon every week. At the end of my first month, I was sure that I had said it all. My well was already running dry.
But another month came and went, as did ten more months after that. And at the end of my first year as a pastor I realized I was not at all depleted as a preacher. In fact, it dawned on me—slowly at first—that I would not live long enough to plumb the heights and the depths of God’s Word. I could preach until I was a little old man, and I would barely scratch the surface of God’s Word!
This discovery wasn’t about my cleverness or my “way with words.” Rather I became aware of the sheer magnitude of God’s Word. Like all God’s good gifts, the Word overflows, like “the rain and the snow that come down from heaven,” in Isaiah’s image.
A Three-Layered Word
What makes God’s Word so all-encompassing? Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Confession of Faith (http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Secretary/ELCA-Governance/Constitutions-of-the-Evangelical-Lutheran-Church-in-America.aspx) describes our three-layered experience of God’s Word.
• The Word, first and foremost, is “Jesus Christ…the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.” The amazing, abundant capacity of the Word of God comes from the overflowing life of Jesus who, as John’s gospel proclaims, is “full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is God’s magnum opus—God’s best love letter to you and me and the whole creation.
• Second, the Word is “the proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel…revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.” As Lutheran disciples we revel in the notion that the very same Jesus who was born in a manger, died on a cross and stepped froth from the tomb is alive and active now whenever his gospel is proclaimed, whether in the public space of weekly worship, or in the more intimate space of daily conversation.
• Third, the Word comes in a written form as well, in “the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments….Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.” None of us will live long enough to plumb the depths of this amazing Book.
What we dare not miss here is not only the three-layered nature of the Word of God, but also how each layer is about Jesus. Jesus himself is “the-Word-with-skin-on” (incarnate). Jesus’ saving life inspires proclamation of the Word as gospel-address. And the Holy Bible, is always and forever the “Jesus Book.”
“Does” More Than “Is”
Definitions are important, but they take us only so far. The ELCA Confession of Faith offers a splendid three-layered definition of the phrase “Word of God.” It tells us—richly, abundantly—what the Word “is.” But the greater question is: what is the Word good for? What does it do to us? What change does it bring to the whole creation?
Lutherans, at their best, have always focused more on the “does” than the “is” when it comes to the Word. We believe this bias is true to the Word itself, which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Hebrews 4:12)
As a confirmation student back in the 1960s, my pastor had our class memorize (several times over two years of instruction!) Isaiah 55:10-11. What I took away from that assignment was the amazing notion that the Word “accomplishes” God’s intentions for it. The Word does what it is—killing the god-forsaking rebel in me, raising up the hope-filled believer in me.
A Dangerous, World-Turning Book
But do most folks think of the Word in this dynamic way—especially with respect to its written form? Nowadays the Bible conjures up, for too many of us, other notions. Some write off the Bible as passé, the dusty byproduct of an age that has passed away. Others are mystified by the Scripture and too embarrassed by their own biblical ignorance to risk opening its pages. Still others regard the Bible as a battleground—lobbing proof texts like hand grenades.
The problem with such approaches is that they all over-emphasize what the Bible allegedly is, to the neglect of what it does. They each, in their own way, reduce the Bible to a dead letter.
But the Bible isn’t dead. It’s alive. It snaps, crackles and pops with energy. When we open its pages, we can expect to be changed, converted. It is a dangerous, world-turning book.
In a very helpful article, (http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm) Bishop N.T. Wright of the Anglican Diocese of Durham speaks of the Bible’s authority not in terms of its commands or doctrines, but its “long, sprawling, complex but ultimately coherent narrative (emphasis added) about the creator and the creation, the people of Israel, and particularly Jesus Christ and his first followers.” And what is the point of this narrative?
Bishop Wright continues: “The Bible as a whole offers a paradigm, a framework, an overarching context in which the text itself is designed to function, through the mercy and providence of the God of creation and covenant, as a crucial means of guiding God’s people to be the people through whom new creation will come about (emphasis added). The Bible is there, not simply to impart true information about what God is up to…, but to be part of the action, part of the means by which God does what God intends to do. This (to put it mildly) is a more dynamic concept of ‘authority’ than is sometimes imagined, and also more complex…. It isn’t just that Christians today need to read the Bible again and again to be sure that they are believing, or doing, everything it says. It is, rather, that Jesus (like his Jewish contemporaries) read his Bible as the single great narrative…of how the creator God had called out a people through whom he would redeem the world…. And the Christian follow-on from that is that the Bible itself urges us to read it in full cognisance of the fact that we are ourselves actors in the ongoing drama, the story of the Holy Spirit….”
We Help Write the Conclusion
Wright’s last sentence underscores something that happens as we dwell in God’s Word. We realize that there is an open-ended, indeed unfinished quality to this Word. It flows forward, into God’s future. And we realize that God allows us to help write the conclusion to his story.
This amazing, aching, anxious age in which we live—as we begin the second decade of the 21st century—is the arena where God is pursuing his great mission of rescue and renewal, in and through our hands. God doesn’t need you and me, of course. But God chooses to do nothing without us. Our dwelling in God’s Word, our daily encounter with that Word leads us toward God’s tomorrow in Jesus Christ.
Time and again I see how God’s Word is active and alive in our midst, in our synod, in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and in our global partners in Christ. Here are some parting snapshots that illustrate what I’m saying:
• I think of Pastor Bill Reck (St. Paul’s, Crookston) beaming with joy as he describes the 30+ parishioners who have journeyed with him through the entire Bible, via the time-tested Bethel Series.
• I recall with fondness, meeting some of the “Bible Women” of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church. Much of their ministry involves sharing the Word with women who are in transition from Hinduism to Christianity. “We can get in the back doors of our neighbors’ homes, where the women do much of their work,” they testified during our pilgrimage to India this past November.
• I still can see and hear all the ways—in skits, songs and testimonies—that youth at two synod gatherings this past fall delved deeper into what it means to reflect God’s image in the world.
• I am heartened, in the wake of the much-discussed human sexuality decisions at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, to learn of so many pastors and church members who’ve been re-engaging the Bible, making use of the ELCA Journey Together Faithfully resources, especially the biblical resource by Professors Arland Hultgren and Walter Taylor (http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/JTF-Human-Sexuality/Faithful-Journey-Resources/Essays.aspx).
God strengthen you in 2010 as the Word washes over you, overflowing through Jesus the Word made flesh, through the refreshing proclamation of the Word, and through the awesome Book that unleashes God’s saving reign over us and the whole creation.
Your fellow witness to the Word,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.
Some questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. How have you experienced the “overflowing” of God’s Word?
2. When you hear the phrase “Word of God” do you think of all three “layers” of the Word described in the ELCA Confession of Faith? Why or why not?
3. In your congregation’s life how do persons hear the Word as a viva vox (living voice)?
4. How do you perceive God using you (or your congregation) to help write the conclusion to his story?
This is the first of twelve articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study and a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.