Friday, October 16, 2015

Hit By the Book

The Word of God poster

In her short story “Revelation,” the great American author Flannery O’Connor writes about a character named Mrs. Ruby Turpin. Ruby is a rather plump, older middle class southern lady, possessed of a rather formidable sense of superiority. The story opens with Mrs. Turpin in a crowded waiting room at a doctor’s office. She is looking around with a savagely critical eye and ranking herself in relation to all the other people waiting there.

She begins a conversation with a nicely dressed grey haired lady of a similar social status to herself, and the two chat in a casually racist and smilingly passive-aggressive way. Throughout the whole conversation, Ruby is distracted by a scowling young woman reading a large text book called, Human Development.

The girl is the grey haired lady’s daughter. She apologizes for her daughter’s anti-social behavior and the two begin to talk about her as if she isn’t there. They talk about how ungrateful the younger generation is. Ruby proclaims,

"If it's one thing I's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting...'Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!'”

It is at the point that the young woman hurls her textbook at Ruby’s forehead. O’Connor writes,

"The book struck her directly over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl's fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck…The doctor and nurse intervened, controlling the girl and administering a long needle and syringe to her. But before she yielded to sleep, the girl looked fiercely into Mrs. Turpin's eyes. "There was no doubt in (Mrs. Turpin's) mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. 'What you got to say to me?' she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

"The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin's. 'Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,' she whispered…”

When Ruby returned home she couldn’t get the girl’s words out of her mind. O’Connor writes,  “It was like a message from God.” Ruby asked herself, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?"

Ruby’s question just may be one of the most theologically pointed questions in all of literature. The conviction of our sinfulness is a shocking revelation, a rude awakening, but it is the necessary first step of human development, of becoming the person that God created us to be. The big book of human development that comes out of nowhere to knock us off our feet and open our eyes to the truth about ourselves is the Bible, Holy Scripture, God’s Word.

Most people don’t come to the Bible to be confronted with the desperate nature of their situation. They open the book looking for some ancient wisdom on how to live a moral life. This is what the rich young man in our Gospel reading came to Jesus looking for. He was saying, in effect, “Ok Jesus, the theology is interesting and all, but how about some practical life application? Tell me what I need to do in order to inherit eternal life.” Jesus was happy to oblige him and reminded him of God’s holy commandments. Very confident of his own righteousness, the earnest young man said, “I’ve done all of these things since I was a kid.” It was at this point that Jesus threw the book at him, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." At this the man went away sad.
We need more than a bit of good advice. Most of us know the commandments, the problem is that we don’t follow them. You want to know how to have a good marriage? Be selfless and lay down your life for your spouse. You want to know how to live a life pleasing to God? Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. How is that working out for you?

Don’t settle for good advice when what you need is the transformative power of the gospel. Don’t settle for a life coach when what you need is a Savior.

The Bible is more than just a treasure trove of timeless moral principles. We call the Bible, “the word of God,” and it is appropriate to do so; but we need to correctly understand what that means. The Word of God is primarily God’s act of self-revelation. The Bible is God’s word because God chooses to take up these ordinary human words and infuse them with his own Spirit. God speaks to us through the Bible in a unique and authoritative way. To the extent that God uses the faithful preaching of scripture to reveal himself to others, it too can be called the word of God. The primary way in which God speaks to us, however, is through his son Jesus Christ. He himself is the living revelation of God, the Word made flesh.

Our reading from Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is living and active. What this means is that reading Holy Scripture is more like encountering a person than it is absorbing a body of information. The risen Christ himself comes to us through its words and we are brought into the light of his dazzling and life-altering presence.

The author of Hebrews continues, it is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Word has the power to cut through all our defenses, to pierce the dense fog of our ignorance. To those who would set themselves against God as his enemies, it wounds them, disarms them, and brings them to justice.

The word brings us before the throne of our righteous Judge, we hear the accusations made against us, and we know that we are guilty. There is no place to hide. Before him [Jesus Christ] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

We spoke of how God’s Word convicts us of our sin, but it doesn’t leave us hopeless. It is not only the revelation of God’s righteous law but also of his boundless grace. Christ is our judge, but he is also our advocate. The Judge accepts the penalty in our place.

To use a different metaphor, Christ gives us the horrible prognosis of death, but he also offers us healing. To those who bend the knee and surrender to his mighty power the sharp two-edged sword of the word is the scalpel of a skilled physician and healer. Like a surgeon, he opens up our spirit and soul, to cut from it the deadly cancer, the deadly infection of sin that poisons us.

God does not leave us to our own devices. He became directly involved in our life by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. He gives us mercy in our guiltiness, hope in our hopelessness, and deliverance from death. He throws the book at us, but he also helps us to our feet. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.