The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page at www.wearesoutheast.org
I had some favorite Bible stories as a kid. I loved the story about Noah and his ark filled with his family and animals. There was the story when Joshua fought the battle of Jericho. The people marched around the city, blew their horns, and the walls came tumbling down. And I loved the stories of this guy named Paul who started a bunch of churches after he started following Jesus.
And all of these were cool stories as a kid. We had little cut-outs of the characters, and our Sunday School teacher would put them up this board called flannel graph as she retold us these stories.
And then, something happened. When I was in college, I began to ask questions about these stories. I realized that they weren’t as cute and fun as I thought they were. I started to look closer at the stories, and I realized that while Noah was saved from the flood, the way the story tells it means that God destroyed everything and everyone else. Those walls that came down at Jericho weren’t just walls. Inside those walls were families who were scared of this invading army marching around their city. Hundreds of trumpets and the splitting of rock and mortar were the last sounds they and their kids ever heard. And that guy named Paul started a bunch of churches, but he also wrote a letter telling women they should shut up when they are in church and listen to the men in the room.
All of a sudden my innocent faith of a child was being tested by the very real questions I began to ask about this book we call holy scripture. Now, I’m not upset that I learned these stories as a kid. I’m thankful that my parents brought me up into a faith that became my own. I also want my kids to learn these stories. But I had to be honest with my questions.
I don’t do this often, but let me just read the description that we created for this series:
What do you do with an ancient book that’s full of wisdom and confusion, clarity and contradictions, love and violence? The words from the Bible have been used by preachers, liberators, musicians, kings, and politicians to inspire and lead, but to also bring fear and oppression. Many have asked, and continue to ask, “Is this book sacred scripture or something else?” Questions, while often seen as doubt and disbelief, are where we think faith can begin.
Is there a Bible story that has struck you as strange or troubling, one that has perhaps stirred up questions and doubts?
Are there questions about the Bible you’ve been afraid to confront but would love to ask?
Have you felt drawn to Jesus but wondered how the rest of the Bible fits into a modern faith?
These are questions that we want to wrestle with, and we are inviting you into the conversation. So, rather than ignore the hard questions about the Bible, we are going to lean into them, because tension always has the potential to lead us all to a more authentic faith.
Now, the first thing that is important for us is for us to realize that I’m not, and you’re not, the first people to have hard questions about the Bible. You probably know of a man named Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the third president of the United States and was an important figure in the founding of the country. But what I find interesting about Jefferson is how he wrestled with faith.
The book that is pictured on the screen is known as the Jefferson Bible. Now, while, it’s hard to relate to much about Thomas Jefferson, or any of these huge historical figures, the questions he asked are the ones I just asked a minute ago. Jefferson asked the same questions as you and I. His solution to the tension, however, was quite unique. He took a razor and literally removed the parts of the Bible he didn’t agree with, or he didn’t think possible. Then he took glue and put everything back together the way it made sense to him.
Historians say that he didn’t intend for it to be published. He would probably wonder why it is for sale on Amazon. Most historians believe it was meant to be private and for his own study as he wrestled with these questions alone.
And the problem with that is that God has never intended us to wrestle with questions alone. If one thing can be discovered in scripture, it’s a sense of community. You could say that the idea of a private faith doesn’t really make sense at all. Instead, we are meant to be a people who wrestle with questions together.
So where do we begin a journey like this? I think there is probably no better place than at the very beginning. So, let’s go to the very beginning, It’s right after the table of contents and has been there for thousands of years. Let’s see what it says.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
This small section of scripture probably raises all sorts of questions within you. This might even be the thing that turned you off from scripture entirely because you have always struggled to reconcile faith and science. And, I totally get that which is why we are going to talk about that next week.
But that isn’t what I want us to address today. I want to look at that first verse because I think it is in that first verse that we will discover something that can radically change the way you look at, and read the Bible. So, let’s look at that one more time.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
It seems simple enough, right? But maybe it’s not.
Here is what this passage looks like in what’s called the King James Version.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
So, is it one heaven or is it two?
Now, let’s go back a little bit further. Here is what this looks like in Old English.
In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe.
Now, it’s hard enough just to understand the difference between Old English and Middle Ages English. And then we see differences between that and what we first read. The reason for this is because we are reading translations because the Bible didn’t drop from the sky in English.
The Bible is a book written over thousands of years. It’s really a library written by 60 authors and communities of people in at least three different languages. Jesus spoke in Aramaic. Paul, the guy who started all those churches, and the people in the early church who knew him spoke a form of Greek called Marketplace Greek or Koine Greek. And what we call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, almost 3/4 of the Bible was written in the Hebrew language.
So, why does that matter? Why does any of this matter? It matters because the Hebrew language is unruly, it’s difficult to translate. Let me take a second to explain.
The Hebrew word “Bereshit” is often translated “In the beginning,” but, interestingly it can also be translated “When God began to create.” The reason for this is because this word can be translated as a noun or as a verb. This isn’t really unique because we have words like this in English (access, challenge, fold, coach, and question are just a few).
If the word is a noun, the first letter in the Hebrew becomes a preposition, so you end up with:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…
But if the Hebrew word BERESHIT is translated as a verb, everything changes. As a result, the first letter in the word becomes the word WHEN. This would mean that we end up with this instead:
When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the deep…
The second translation changes everything. That question that little kids ask about what was before creation gets a bit murkier. It sounds like there was actually something there. Now, I’m not saying this second translation is correct. What I will say is that it is an entirely legit translation of the Hebrew. And, this raises all sorts of questions. But it also says something about us and our relationship with God.
You see, from the very first page, the very first word, and the with the very first letter we get an invitation. We get a passage that totally changes in meaning depending on how you interpret those words. Now, that might sound really scary, but it’s actually great news because it illustrates an important truth about the Bible. From the very beginning (literally) the Bible starts out by challenging us to interpret without giving us easy, straightforward answers. The Bible isn’t a book that we are supposed to place on a bookshelf or a coffee table. It’s a book that we are supposed to wrestle with.
If God wanted, he could have given us all the same language with one book that we all could read that would never have to be updated, translated, or interpreted. Instead, he allowed this collection of stories, history, and letters to be written in the language of the people who were writing it: each generation, interpreting and applying the lessons of the scripture to their life. We are a part of that story. We have been given the gift of not just simply receiving, but participating. And that participation, that invitation, is a gift because it means God doesn’t see us as static creation but as a living, breathing part of the story of the world.
So, how do we participate? How do we interpret? I’m glad you asked!
I’m sitting on a stool today. It has four legs, and if any of these four legs broke, I would fall. Now, just like my stool, we have been given tools to ask the questions we raise when we talk about faith. These tools are REASON, EXPERIENCE, SCRIPTURE, and TRADITION.
What that means is that none of these things can sit on their own but must be equally weighted and distributed as we wrestle with our faith. Sometimes, the way one informs the other causes us to shift. It’s why abolitionists read the Bible and fought to end slavery. It’s why people eventually accepted Galileo’s theory of the universe. And, it’s why here in our church we still believe in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now, I’m not a big acronym guy, but I love this one. When you look at those words, you realize that the first letters spell out the word REST. And that’s exactly what we can do. When we begin to wrestle with scripture and ask hard questions we can REST.
We can rest in the reality that God can handle our questions, our doubts, and our disbelief because the pages of scripture are filled with those things.
We can REST in our faith because even in the midst of the biggest questions people can ask, people wrote down their stories of what God had done and what he was continuing to do.
And, we can rest in the reality that we are surrounded today by fellow travelers on this journey who have asked many of the same questions we’ve asked.
With that in mind, I’m guessing that at the end of this morning you probably have way more questions now than answers. I hope you will lean into those rather than away from them.
You see, some people told me during that time in college when I started asking questions that I was asking the wrong questions. Other people said I shouldn’t be asking questions at all. But at some point, I discovered that questions are where authentic faith begins. I’ve discovered God is big enough for the hard questions and that, because of those questions, I actually love the Bible more than I ever have. What I’ve discovered this ancient book is actually much more fascinating, more intriguing, and more a part of my faith now that I know which questions to ask.
So I hope you will join me in this journey to dig a little deeper and discover this ancient book that I think if we would be willing to read it and wrestle with it, is incredibly relevant for your life in ways that you have yet to even discover.