Reading Scripture, Reading Life
by Fr. Blake
This sermon was preached at 8am and 10am on December 7, 2014, at S. Stephen’s Church. It is written for Advent 2, which is traditionally associated with themes of Judgement, and which more recently has focused on John the Baptist. Both themes present an opportunity to reflect on Scripture, and about we understand God to speak within it and within the lives of those who read it faithfully.
Collect: Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
One of the classic ways Christians have approached Scripture is to read it prayerfully, paying attention to the many layers of meaning present within it.
Traditionally, there are four such layers: the first, and the foundation of the others, is the “literal” level: What does the text say? Who are the main characters? What are they doing?
The second layer is the realm of analogy and various other kinds of literary devices: What metaphors are in play, with what kind of symbolism? Does this verse or that verse build on foreshadowing from previous chapters or previous books? Does it look forward to promises yet to be fulfilled?
The third layer of meaning is that of morality: How do we interpret our moral lives based on the prescriptions or illustrations from this book or that episode? How do we articulate the kinds of things we understand God expects of us?
The final layer of meaning is often labeled the “anagogical,” or the mystical. It is the summit of the other layers, and it is a way in which we are brought out of ourselves into closer union with God himself, through the Scriptures his Spirit inspires.
Every subsequent layer builds on what came before. They are cumulative. We cannot have one without the other. In all our Bible reading, we have to begin with the first layer, with what the text says, in order to get to the others in their turn. (Incidentally, I think a lot of trouble in the church comes from the mistake of elevating one particular layer of scriptural meaning over and above all the others.) All of them work together as a complex whole: teaching us the purposes of God in the world, instilling in us more and more the holy fear of God, exhorting us to put away sin and be made holy, bringing us out of ourselves and setting us on a track further up and further into the mysteries of God, as we move from this world to the next.
Reading Scripture this way is not an easy project, however. There are plenty of seeming contradictions in the text between one layer of meaning and another, between a particular passage and a similar one later on. In those circumstances, the Church has learned a very practical solution. We cannot simply dismiss Scripture out of hand, particularly when we place so much stock in the Holy Spirit to speak within it. In circumstances of difficulty, contradiction, and paradox, the Church has learned not to skim over or ignore, but to sit up and take note. From at least the time of Origen in the second century, and perhaps earlier, the Church has understood these moments as essential clues: clues that the most apparent meaning in the text is not the final one. In places where Scripture seems not to make sense, or to contradict itself, classic Christian wisdom has seen a sure-fire clue that the Holy Spirit is drawing us further into a deeper mystery.
One of the clearest examples is John the Baptist. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask him point-blank if he is Elijah — whom Scripture promised would come again to prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist replies — equally point-blank — that he is not Elijah. At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, however, which we’ve just heard chanted, all the imagery indicates that John the Baptist really is the second Elijah: living in the wilderness, preaching repentance, calling people to return to the Lord. At another point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus himself seems to indicate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that John the Baptist was indeed Elijah: in chapter nine, he says that “Elijah has indeed come,” and that people treated him just as badly the second time as they did the first time.
What do we make of this? Is John the Baptist really Elijah, or isn’t he? This seeming contradiction points us to a third way. Both possibilities are true, and are meant to show us that the prophetic word, the promise that God would forgive, redeem, and save his people, is not just hot air, not just so much rhetorical imagery, but that it will be fulfilled in a flesh and blood person — who is the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. The question, “Who is John the Baptist?” points us to God’s answer in Jesus, leads us towards the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and incorporates us into the mystical body of Christ, the household of God.
If all this sounds a little far-fetched, or a little too complicated, all we have to do is look at our own lives. You and I are full of many of the same difficulties and contradictions that we see in Scripture. We say one thing and do another. We have ideals for our lives and hopes for our society, and our weaknesses and sins keep us from achieving either of them. Everywhere we see good intentions for better futures; everywhere we see self-interest and human flaws contributing towards destruction and chaos instead.
We hear promises like in today’s reading from Isaiah: in which the glory of God is revealed, the rough places are smoothed, the valleys raised, God’s justice spreads abroad, and he cares for his people as a shepherd for his sheep. We hear these promises and we look around: we do not often see evidence of God’s justice, we rarely see gentleness prevailing in anything; and the glory of God often seems drowned out by bombs and poverty and dishonesty. How do we read our lives? How do we read our world?
One option is to dismiss the promises of Scripture, and say they cannot be true. Too many choose this option, and it is always sad. Another option is to live in denial about the suffering of our world, and to throw ourselves into the glittering images of a future utopia. Too many choose this option too, and it always misses the point.
But there is a third option, the difficult option: to see in all of our present difficulties and contradictions the working of the Holy Spirit of God, guiding us through our current thorny ways, pointing us towards a higher truth, a greater promise. The Holy Spirit neither dismisses hope nor denies suffering, but redeems them both in the person of Jesus Christ. Whenever we are most confused, most pressed into a corner by the tension between our faith and our world, it is a sure sign that God is near: working his higher purpose, working to draw us nearer to him, to incorporate us all the more fully into himself and his purposes for the world.
How do we take hold of the promise? How do we find forgiveness for our sins? Heed the teaching of John the Baptist: repent and be baptized; ask forgiveness, and be washed in the water of new life. Above all, love him whose way John the Baptist came to prepare. Love him in whom are met the hopes and fears of all the years (as the Christmas carol puts it).
Soon we will meet him today again at the altar, in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. It is the Sacrament of death and sacrifice, of resurrection and new creation. It is the sacrament of love: his love for you and me, poured out upon the cross. All contradictions, all paradoxes, all conflicts of meaning, come together there, in one person, Jesus Christ. Let us love him. So may our confusion and our dis-ease find their answer. So may our mission be made clear. So may we be made ready to meet him when he comes again. So may we rejoice in his kingdom, where righteousness finally dwells.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.