The Bible is closed. Nothing can be added. It says so at the end of Revelation. God has spoken and that's that. All the voices, the prophecy, the visions, the conversations with angels and with God, those were all direct inner experiences of God. Were those just historical, of an ancient time? There yesterday, gone today? Did God figure, "Okay, that's all they need. Let's see how they do."? Uh, not necessarily so. God may not be through with us. Our readings today show these direct experiences of God continued all through scripture, not just as eye-popping events, but continuing and deepening through time. They even suggest God may still be speaking with us today.
Our first reading today is from Prophets. Moses received God’s great gift of the commandments - and sealed them up and literally put them in a box. Quite an experience. But God was not through speaking and teaching humanity. The gifts the Creator gave us needed to be delivered, unwrapped, and assembled. Batteries inserted. Humanity was too immature to fully understand what this gift was and how to use it. So God kept teaching and sent the Prophets. The message the prophets delivered also came through their own direct experiences of God.
In our reading, young Jeremiah responded immediately to his encounter with the voice of God. He even argued with God for choosing him as a prophet, because Jeremiah was just a boy. God put Jeremiah in his place and then told him, "You shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Then, to comfort the young prophet, God adds, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. Jeremiah experienced, accepted and, um, followed directions.
We usually think of the prophets as warning in the name of God, calling the people to repent and shape up. True of course, but the prophets also gave us even more important information from God that carries beyond the events of the biblical moment. It's easy to miss the additional message, to hear it just as redundant flowery bible language. For example, in God's charge to young Jeremiah, God says; See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.
There's a lot of information in God's brief to Jeremiah. There are three things in a particular order. First; To pluck up and pull down. The people and leaders of Judah had gotten priorities mixed up. Despite God's explicit instructions, Judah was sacrificing to Pagan gods and worshipping idols. God was not pleased. Jeremiah is given authority to change the order of things, to take what had fallen to the bottom of the nation's priority list, worship of the one God, to pluck it up and make it the top agenda item. And, to take things that had become the top items, namely Pagan idolatry, pull that down and put it on the manure pile. And, Jeremiah is charged with making it clear to the people; this is the ordering commanded and demanded by God. Gosh, it's so easy for us to forget even the first commandment.
The second; To destroy and to overthrow. God makes it clear to Jeremiah, this is not just a warning. It is an announcement. Jeremiah’s words carry the full authority of God. The people will not listen to Jeremiah's warning. So the kingdom will be destroyed. Justice will be administered. Judah's leadership will be overthrown. a foreign government will take over — and it will not be pleasant.
But then the often-overlooked third: To build and to plant. It will look like the end for the holy people, but they will be restored after God's discipline is delivered. Jerusalem was captured and finally destroyed as predicted. The people carried off to Babylon. Yet, Jeremiah says, For seventy years this whole country will be a ruin, an object of horror, and these nations will be in subjection to the king of Babylon. At the end of the 70 years God sends his Persian servant Cyrus to liberate the exiled people and restore them to the land of Judah as God told Jeremiah.
Judah and Jerusalem were out of God's good order. To straighten them out, God took some dramatic action. But then they experienced God's restorative justice to help them see the error of their ways. When they and God were ready to move onward, God arranges it that they are restored and reconstructed in a new and better order. They are built and planted again. New and improved.
All through scripture we see a progression. The Bible is not static. It - and we - aren’t finished. The Bible calls out to humanity to mature as we grow in ability to understand. And our ability to understand grows through our contact with the divine. We, and the writers of the Bible, often misconstrued God's nature and what and why God is doing what God does. The Bible text contains honest perceptions of the people at the time, what we humans were ready and capable to understand at the time that portion of scripture was written. When we read in Judges and Joshua we’re reading about the how bronze age people perceived God. Their view is far more primitive than the sophistication of the Gospel of John. This represents an enormous growth in our human ability to understand who and what God is. Over time, God appears to become less violent, less punitive, more inclusive, less tribal. Does God really change? Or are we able to see God more clearly as we grow in understanding?
Let's look at the second example from our readings today. The Letter to the Hebrews gives us a picture of the people at the time of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The people cowered in fear at the terrifying sight and voice of God. Direct experience. It was so frightening they begged not another word be spoken to them.
The people at Mt. Sinai experienced God as a gaggle of grumbling ex-slaves wandering in an unfamiliar desert, longing for the certainty of their former slavery. The recorders at the time see God as terrifying, incomprehensible. Even Moses said, I tremble with fear.
Then Hebrews speaks to the people 1400 years later: But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Hebrews was written late in the first century AD. The same God now speaks to a more mature Church. Much more mature. God is unchanged; we had changed. There is a trajectory to human growth. We usually think of it as evolution. The Bible both guides and tracks the arc, the trajectory of human evolution — and our personal evolution as individuals. Scripture tells us Jesus came in the fullness of time. In the Bronze Age we humans were not ready for the sophistication of Jesus' message. But over time there was growth. We come to the immediate acceptance, humility and wisdom of Mary, Jesus' mother to be. Mary represented a flowering and maturity of humanity that doesn't appear earlier in scripture. God must have judged that it was now time for the appearance of Jesus; the eternal Christ in human form.
Now, as Jesus himself grows in wisdom and understanding, new teaching bursts into human history. We see a dramatic change in both tradition and scripture in our gospel reading. Some get it. Some don't. The inertia of tradition is one of the greatest growth retardants.
Let's unpack Luke's parable. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. A woman appears, bent over, hobbled by a spirit that has crippled her for 18 years. Eighteen is the number of fullness of life; in Hebrew 18 is chai, life. "L'chaim, to life!" Her life was a life of crippled spirit, bent, not able to fully live. Yet she had been following tradition, faithfully attending synagogue all her life. She would have faithfully recited the prayers of the time. Still, she has no relief.
Today, Jesus is teaching, preaching something new. Jesus sees the woman, sees her faith, knows her need. Jesus calls her over and says, Woman, you are set free from your ailment. As she hears and experiences the call of Jesus, as she experiences the hands of Jesus laid upon her, she immediately stands upright, straight, transformed, and begins to praise God.
"Stop," cries the church indignantly. "This is out of proper order." Yet the crowd of ordinary people, in the presence of Jesus, have seen and experienced the immediacy of this woman's inner liberation. The people rejoice at how God now directly touches people through the power and agency of their faith.
Is Jesus overthrowing scripture? He is certainly overthrowing tradition. Jesus offers something more, something better. What Jesus offers is not new; Jesus offers something humanity is now able to hear and understand. God's invasion into human consciousness and human experience has always been filtered by our capacity to hear and to receive. Our ability to hear and understand has grown over the millennia since the earliest parts of the Bible were written. As we know, the Bible is the inspired word of God in the words of men. God broke into history and little by little changed us. Human's ability to understand has grown.
Our filters of understanding were growing thanks to ongoing contact with this divine, very positive "invasion." In our parable, Jesus is demonstrating the fruit of an even more complete understanding of scripture, and at the same time, he is deliberately blowing up religious tradition. An experience of the living God is taking place.
The church of that time, a church with a less evolved, less mature understanding, a church which recognized only the authority of an incomplete understanding of scripture and bound by a tradition of long practice, the traditional church failed to recognize the significance of the experience unfolding before them. Direct experience of God empowered the woman’s release from that which imprisoned her. The prisoner was set free.
The Bible that we know may be “a closed book” but God’s teaching and our growth continue, as it did throughout Scripture. With Jesus, we are taught that we each have the experience, the direct experience, of the divine. We are called to grow and transform with that experience.
As we move forward, remember, each one of us is the whole world. We is it! And, as Moses said, it's not something outside us or beyond us. Jesus said, it's at hand, right here. We're each standing at the door of the kingdom. Jesus tells us the non-secret secret of getting in, of experiencing the kingdom:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Jesus tells us the kingdom is entered and experienced through action. Entering the kingdom starts with the guide of scripture, is informed by tradition, and becomes real to us when we actively experience it.
Ask means first recognize your real dependency — and your real need. The words of Jesus can help you know what to pray for. Then take the step. Work it. The woman in our parable had been asking for pain relief, faithfully came to church regularly. Asking led to her direct encounter with Jesus, his words transformed her and changed her life.
Seek is another action. Yes, look, really look around you and inside you. The answer is here, in you. But it takes some wrestling to find it. Are you fully open to God’s teaching? To God’s voice? Or are you tangled in the human weeds. Stop looking outward and elsewhere. That's an empty exercise. The kingdom is at hand. Right here. But you've got to aggressively look for it.
Knock. Knocking is not a gentle tap-tap-tap. Moses and Jesus both tell us we are to Love this Lord, our God with all our heart, with all our inner soul and with all our strength. Asking is our heart recognizing the need for the love of God, Seeking is unbinding our inner spirit, opening our soul to God. And we need to Knock on the gate with everything we’ve got. Knocking is a violent storming of the kingdom. As Jesus said in Matthew; Since the time of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been forcing its way forward, and men of force are seizing it.
Jesus "knocked" in prayer. As Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested, he knocked. Listen to the intensity, the violent knocking of his prayer:
...in anguish of spirit he prayed the more urgently; and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
His disciples, the faithful who begged to share the cup he was about to take, where were they?
When he rose from prayer and came to the disciples he found them asleep, worn out by grief. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he said. ‘Rise and pray that you may be spared the test.
We know the sleeping disciples grew in faith, wisdom and humility to become the powerful and energetic leaders of the Church. That honest picture of the disciples at the time shows us it's okay if we have been only partly awake up to now. God knows that we can and will evolve as humans and as Christians to greater faith, humility and wisdom.
Our Bible is still being written, and we are the next chapter.