Sunday, February 25, 2007

Receiving the Word of God Part I - Father Lee Nelson

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

From the Letter of Paul to the Romans, I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Before I begin this morning, I’d like to state that it is not common or normal for lowly curates such as myself to get to preach two Sundays in a row. Conventional wisdom among parish rectors states that part and parcel of keeping curates in their place is to let them preach a maximum of once a month. Curates are typically employed to do the Rector’s dirty work, and as such, should not be allowed to take from the limelight of the pulpit too much.

That may be true for most, but I am very thankful that Father Crary is intent on giving me opportunities for practice, even if he is, in fact, going away for the week, and God forbid he would have to prepare a sermon during a week in Wisconsin.

By the way, I checked the weather, and the high is not set to exceed 33 degrees. So enjoy yourself.

That being said, I will, in fact, be preaching next Sunday as well, and thought that I would preach a miniseries of sorts that has been brewing in my mind for some time, under the heading of “Receiving the Word of God.”

It is an often misunderstood term - the Word of God.

Some immediately think of stacks of black leather bibles, or of preachers in pinstripe suits, but this a rather inadequate impression. For the last several hundred years, Christians have focused, even hyper-focused on the Word of God as verbal and written.
That is certainly part of it, but it is not the whole of it. In the Old and New Testaments themselves, the “Word of God” is a much more dynamic concept.
For Saint Paul, the Word of God is hard at work, toiling in the believer. For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, the Word of God is “living and active,” it discerns the human heart, and much more than that, the Word of God is not so much an it as it is a He.
The Word of God is personal, and consists of the Person of Jesus Christ.

So, when we talk about receiving the Word of God in any form, we are by necessity speaking of receiving Jesus.

For the Evangelist John writes in this way:
“He [the Word] came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”

Our reading from the Letter to the Romans this morning states: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And that is not so much an act of believing as it is an act of receiving the power of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

In short, receiving is believing.

That is a concept which doesn’t necessarily jive with our culture. In this culture, one must truly know in order to believe. Facts must be checked, evidences weighed, so on and so forth, because everyone must be an authority.

But, for the Christian religion, there is but one authority, Jesus Christ himself, the author and source of all life, and namely the Word of God. In order to believe in Him, we must receive that which He has given.

To be sure, many speak of knowing the Bible, or of knowing “about” God, like someone would know business or law or particle physics. But, Christianity is quite different. Christian knowledge is not knowledge of a subject, it is knowledge of a person. And that knowledge, as we have said, comes by receiving, receiving the Word of God.

The great problem here is that we Americans are not typically good at the act of receiving. We live in an ambitious and driven culture, consumed with “going and getting.” And thus, when we think about the accumulation of Christian knowledge, we tend to thing about the knowledge that one has attained, rather than received.

If we achieve the Word of God, we attain it by our own principles, by our own rules, we render it useless. We may, in fact, learn some things. But, they will not be at all useful to us.
But, if we receive the Word of God, letting it seep deep into our consciousness, pervading every aspect of our lives, to, as the Letter to the Hebrews states, separate soul and spirit, joint and tendon, the Word of God will be most useful, in that it will lead us to the contemplation of God himself, it will lead us to Heavenly glory.

If we begin to think in this way, we will begin to see Jesus the Word of God not merely as a means to an end, but as the very end itself. We will begin to see that Jesus is not a riddle to be figured out, but one to be let through the doors of our hearts, that he may make his home in us.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Yes, the Word of God must be received.

But how?

In the Book of Acts, the Word of God is described almost like a virus, implanting itself and spreading from body to body. Or like a wildfire, jumping from tree to tree. We read in the Book of Acts such phrases as:
“the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7
“the word of God grew and multiplied.” Acts 12:24
The people glorify the Word of God, the apostles proclaim it.

There is a distinct difference, however, between what happens in the Book of Acts and the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Word of God is only received by the prophets, those select few who have a word from the Lord for the people.

The difference in the Acts of the Apostles is that now the Holy Spirit indwells the Church as a whole.

What this is not to mean is that each Christian thus has the ability to interpret the revealed Word of God. Far from in fact, for, as we have already said, the Word of God is received.
There were often those in the early Church that attempted to interpret the Word of God on their own. Often, there were those who attempted to describe the Person of Christ in their own way, outside of the revelation of the Church. There were those who had supposedly received a “new revelation.”

To these, the Apostles were particularly certain to clarify the nature of the Word of God.
Paul asks the Corinthians whether they were the only ones the Word of God reached, as if they had received it in some sort of vacuum. He is constant in stating that the teaching of the Church regarding the Person of Christ is either what it is, or it is completely useless.
Peter states that “that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

The point is this, that the Word of God is transmitted within the Church. That whether we are talking about Jesus himself, or the Scriptures, or doctrine, or moral teaching, when we speak of the Word of God, we speak of Jesus whose body is the Church.

You might ask “which Church?”

The answer is that the Church is not a dead body, it is a living body, and that it is One - that there is a cohesion of teaching within the living body of the Church, and that there is a cohesion of reception of the Word of God.

Really the question to be asked is not “which Church?,” but rather “is this understanding in
continuity with the truth of the Word of God as the Church has received it?”

This means that if a doctrine is new or foreign to the Church, it is likely to be a departure from the Word of God received, and that it is to be avoided.

A theologian of the 4th Century, Vincent of Lerins, put it this way: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

This says something of the constancy of the Word of God, because it is after all, but one word, not the Words of God, but the Word of God, one constant word spoken to His people.
This word may be experienced in a variety of ways, but the word itself is unchanging.
So far, we have said that the Word of God must be received, that the Word of God is Jesus Himself, and that the Word of God is intended to be received within the body of revelation, the Church.

Next week, we will turn to the practicalities of receiving the Word of God, but for now, the focus is on what the Word of God does to the human person.

Before anything else, we must recognize that the Word of God has as its effect, the salvation of mankind. The Apostle James writes: “...put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
Salvation is always accompanied by sanctity, and in this, the Word is used by God to cleanse.
The Psalmist writes: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to thy word.”

But, the most perfect way is this:
That, in the Person of Christ, the Word of God is given to man most perfectly in Jesus - the Word made flesh.

We hear in the Gospel today the account of Jesus going head to head with Satan in the Wilderness.

At first glance, it may appear that what Jesus does in response to the temptation of Satan is to quote scripture. I have heard this a number of times, in fact I have preached it myself. But, I wish to offer you another view on this.

Satan is clashing not with a man armed with the Scriptures as his shield against temptation. He is clashing with the Word of God made man. This sets up a very different battle, because Jesus not only knows the Scriptures, he is the Word of God, and it gives him power.
Very often, what is drawn from this text is the idea that the Christian can do battle with Satan if armed with the appropriate array of biblical texts. Not so. Satan is big and bad. He’ll whoop you up one side and down the other. He’ll eat you for lunch, no matter how many bible verses you know.

But, when he comes into battle with the Word of God, the two-edged sword, living and active, he’d better watch himself.

Thus, when the Christian, having received the word of God, living and active, incarnate within him, faces temptation, there is true power, power enough to preserve us in the face of temptation, to keep us in the way of righteousness, and to bring us to heavenly glory.
This is after all what Jesus intends, and it is why he gives us his word to give us a portion of His power. This is not power of an earthly sort, such as the power of presidents and dictators, it is power of a heavenly sort, the power to become children of God.

Next week, we will discuss “Receiving the Word of God” in three distinct areas, first of the Scriptures, second in the Liturgy, and third, in the Preaching of the Word.
Three distinct ways of receiving the Word of God.

But, before next week, this:
In order to receive, I must have a place prepared.
In order to receive something, I must have room for it.

No one expects the delivery of furniture without first finding a place for the old furniture. No one puts new furniture in front of the old. No, they take the old furniture out.

Jesus says “no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins."

Jesus also uses the parable of the sower of seeds, with some seed falling along the path, some in rocky soil, some in weedy soil, and some in good soil. The seed is the word, but it cannot be received by, nor can it grow in, unreceptive soil.

This week, you might ask yourself - what parts of me are hardened to God’s Word? What parts of me are unreceptive to God’s Truth? What is there that I believe that is not from God or His Church?

These questions might sting a little bit, but it would be a shame to talk about ways to receive the Word of God without first preparing the soil. A farmer who doesn’t plow before sowing will never reap.

Pray that God will show you your hardened, unreceptive parts.

Allow Him to prepare a place in you for His Word.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


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