This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More
When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.
Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”
Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.
In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.
But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…
The Strange New World Within The Bible
We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.
We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.
We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.
We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.
We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.
We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.
We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?
We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.
We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.
We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.
We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.
Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.
Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.
And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.
We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.
And then it ends and The Bible is finished.
What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?
These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.
It is not merely a history or a genealogy.
It is neither a myth nor a fable.
What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.
We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.
But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.
Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.
And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.
The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?
The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.
The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.
The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!
This Pentecost we celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by handing over our worship service to the youth. The following sermon was proclaimed by Clinton Fitzgerald & Danielle Hammer.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Clinton: Would you please pray with us?
Danielle: May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Clinton: Honestly, preaching a sermon on Youth Sunday, on Pentecost, is really intimidating. For years, I have sat in this sanctuary and listened to countless people describe what it means to be faithful in the world, and now I am one of those people. What does it even mean to preach in the first place? Why do we gather in a place such as this week after week? We spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, that we rarely talk about what the church is in the first place.
Danielle: Yet here we are. For one reason or another God has called us to be here in this place on this day. We have faith that regardless of what we say, the Lord will use our words in spite of ourselves to share something life-giving with everyone in worship. Which makes preaching all the more strange: Clinton and I are here to tell you what God is saying to us this day. We are both far more used to being the ones sitting in the pews, than being the ones standing in the pulpit, but we’re going to preach anyway.
Clinton: When Taylor asked us to preach, we suspected that he had something up his sleeve, but if you want to know the truth… he’s just lazy and wanted to spend this Sunday listening from the pews.
Danielle: We’re not even really sure if he’s cut-out for this whole “being a pastor thing.” We’ve heard him preach a lot of sermons and offer a lot of prayers… we keep praying for him to get better, but he kinda just does the same thing every week. The poor guy always looks so nervous while he rocks back and forth from one foot to the other while he’s preaching.
Clinton: And have you noticed that he never really knows what to do with his hands? They kind of wander all over the pulpit, and sometimes it looks like the pulpit is the only thing holding him up at all. But hopefully, with enough prayer, we can make him into a good pastor one day.
Danielle: Emphasis on “hopefully”
Clinton: Anyway, we’re not here to bash Taylor. Even if it is fun to make fun of him.
Danielle: We are here to proclaim what it means to be the church, what it means to celebrate Pentecost, and explore how we can be better disciples in the world. In preparation for this sermon, Taylor began polling certain people within the church about why they come to church.
Clinton: Many of the adults had wonderful responses to his question. They described how much they love coming to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings that has such beautiful stained glass windows. Others said that the minute they saw the exposed wood in the sanctuary they knew they would worship here for the rest of their lives.
Danielle: Some of the adults went on and on about how much they loved knowing that we sing traditional hymns in a traditional service. They described how the words of the old hymns reconnect them with the Lord and so long as the church used the hymnal, it would be the church for them. Others shared reflections about how St. John’s has always put an emphasis on prayer in worship. They attend and support this church because they believe in the importance of communing with the Lord.
Clinton: Pretty good responses. But did you notice something missing? Taylor didn’t even notice until he started asking the youth what we love about St. John’s. The adults all described physical and worshipful aspects of our church whereas the youth focused primarily on the people. Now, don’t get us wrong, we like the way this church looks, and we like the things we do in worship. But we love this church because of you.
Danielle: In Sunday School last week, this is how some of us described our love for St. John’s: I love coming to this place because it is God’s house. Sometimes we don’t take the time to pray in our own lives, but the people here encourage me to be a better Christian during the week when we’re apart. I love the fellowship with others. When we read the bible on our own we often have questions that we can’t answer on our own, but here, in this community, I know I have people that can help me.
Clinton: I love this church because the people give me strength. I have a hard time standing up for what is right, but when I’m here I learn that God gives me all the strength I need to be faithful. All of the people here are so nice, how could I not love it? They notice me, they care about me, they ask me questions about what’s going on in my life, they make me feel important and significant. I love the people and how they care about me.
Danielle: What is the church? The church is the body of Christ for the world, which means we are the church! We could have the most beautiful building in the world, we could have the best music in the world every Sunday, but without people, this church would be nothing. Shepherds are nothing without their sheep, and churches are nothing without their people.
Clinton: Personally speaking, St. John’s has played a pivotal role in my life, from the moment I was baptized till right now. I have seen how we support each other through trials and tribulations. Our church is one that, rather than raising our voices or becoming defensive, sits back and listens in the midst of questions and challenges. We leave room for God’s light to shine through us so that we may be more compassionate Christians.
Danielle: While the world continues to spin with competing narratives and organizations vying for our attention, this church with it’s love, support, and community continues to amaze us. In Acts chapter 2, when we learn about the birth of the church, there are no descriptions about the size of sanctuaries, they don’t talk about the order of worship for Sunday mornings, they don’t list out what hymns should be used at what time. It’s all about the people, God’s people, spending time together.
Clinton: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Every Sunday we confront the same kind of wonders and signs the first apostles’ witnessed. We see friends and family who have carried us through the hard moments. We see people who have left their failures of the past to discover new lives in Christ.
Danielle: All who believed were together and had all things in common. We share our life experiences at St. John’s. Whether talking in the narthex or on the front lawn or during the passing of the peace, we share what we can with one another. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. When we pass the plates for the offering, we are redistributing our goods so that those who are in need will receive.
Clinton: Day by day, as they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. Throughout our lives we have seen this church change with new people coming, and old friends going on to be with the Lord. When we spend our time together, when we break bread and feast during communion, we are living into the reality of what it means to be the church today.
Danielle: And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. You might not know it, or even believe it, but each of you have contributed to our mission to be God’s church. Whether this is the first time you’ve entered our doors, or you’ve been coming here your whole life, when we are together, we are the church. Through our relationships with the people in the pews next to us, we become Christ’s body for the world.
Clinton: Danielle and I are who we are because of the tremendous witness this church has been to Christ’s love. We love this building and we love Sunday mornings, but what we really love are the people. We give God thanks for putting you in our lives, and putting us in yours.
Danielle: It is truly a blessing to be standing here before all of you proclaiming God’s Word this day. But it is an even greater privilege to know that we are the church together. We offer this to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.