Karl Barth and The Strange New World Within The Bible

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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How Can We Be Biblically Wise?

1 Kings 3.5-12

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

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This morning we conclude our sermon series on Questions. After polling most of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we have strived during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we finish with “How Can We Be Biblically Wise?”

 

 

Three men were trapped on a deserted island. During the months of their stranded captivity they learned to rely on one another for survival. Without entertainment, they told each other stories and grew very close together. Each day one of them was responsible for making minor repairs to their shelter, one was tasked with scavenging for food, and the last one had to comb the beaches for anything helpful that might’ve washed up.

One particularly beautiful morning, the third man was walking along the beach when he discovered a strangely colored bottle sticking up in the sand. He quickly procured it with his other discoveries and brought them all back to the shelter. Later that night, while they were looking through all the goodies from the beach, one of the men accidently rubbed the bottle and a genie popped right out!

Because there were three men present, the genie explained that he could grant each of them one wish, rather than giving each of them three wishes. The first man wasted no time and declared, “I miss my family and I wish that I could be back with them!” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.

The second man thought for a moment and said, “You know, I was engaged before I got trapped on this island, I wish I was back with my fiancé.” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.

The third man was now alone with the genie and he thought long and hard about his wish. After all, it’s not like you run into a genie everyday. So he stood there with the genie thinking about all of the things he could wish for when he causally said, “Geez, I wish my friends were back here to help me make my wish.”

Be careful what you wish for…

Solomon was young, inexperienced, and about to rule the kingdom when God showed up in one of his dreams. Almost like a genie, the Lord asks Solomon to make a wish. And, like a preacher in a bad sermon, Solomon over-explains his wish: “God, you were great and loving to my father David because he walked before you in faithfulness, righteousness, and in uprightness of heart. Throughout his years you kept your great and steadfast love for him, and now you have given him a son to sit on his throne; you gave him me. But God, I am only a little child, and I don’t know the first thing about taking care of others. I am in the midst of the people you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be counted. So Lord, if I can ask for anything, give me an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between what is good and what is evil. Give me wisdom.

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It pleased the Lord to hear Solomon wish for wisdom. God then replied to Solomon in his dream: “Solomon, because you have asked for wisdom, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked to be able to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed, I will give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been for you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

Of all the things Solomon could’ve requested: wealth, prosperity, and military victory… He chose wisdom. As a young ruler of God’s chosen people he selflessly asked for the knowledge to lead God’s people in the ways that lead to life.

Godly wisdom, or biblical wisdom, pleases the Lord when it is not self-serving, but other serving. Solomon’s desire for wisdom, because it was for the betterment of others, is what inclined the Lord to dispense it generously. It is in our willingness to use wisdom for others that we begin to experience God’s grace in the world around us.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons and he captivated anyone with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some food. He found a no name diner in the middle of a town and made his way in for breakfast. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While he was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook turned around and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!

The black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, paid, and left. But right before he was about to get back in his car, in that still and quiet morning moment, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

Are any of you feeling chills? Some of us will immediately understand the significance of this moment: Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry mere feet away from him, realized that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion. But some of us did not catch the meaning; we did not have an emotional response to the conclusion of Craddock’s little narrative. If we missed the power of the rooster crowing in the distance, it is because we are unfamiliar with the ways God works in the world.

I had a number of you request, for this sermon series, that I preach about biblical wisdom. I can summarize the whole answer to the question in one sentence: “How can we be biblically wise?” “By reading our bibles!”

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If Craddock was not as familiar with scripture as he was, he easily could’ve entered his car after hearing the rooster crow, and would have missed the power of what God was trying to communicate to him. God used a particular moments to speak large and powerful words to Craddock and God does the same thing in our lives. But if we are not familiar with the ways God has communicated in the past, then we will probably miss the ways God is trying to speak to us right now.

To be biblically wise implies a willingness to bring our souls into alignment with God’s ways. Yet we, as broken and flawed people, have a propensity to become out of alignment with God’s ways. To reorient ourselves, to turn back to the ways of God, we do so by reading scripture.

If we’re here in this sanctuary then we are already on the right path. It was only a few minutes ago that God’s Word was read to us in this place. By taking the time to listen to scripture in a sanctuary we are taking the first steps down the path that will bring us back to the kind of wisdom God desires for us.

But just coming to church is not enough.

We can do some incredible things in this space on Sunday morning, we can re-enter the strange new world of the bible, we can see ourselves in the biblical characters of the past, we can learn about how God uses things like roosters to shock us in the midst of our lives, but it is not enough.

One of the things that Christian people do, is read the bible. The bible is completely unlike any other book that we might read. Any of us can pick up a piece of literature and say, “This is a nice story.” However, the bible is not “a story’, it is “our story”. Our lives began with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Our history goes back to the very beginning. When we read these stories, whether in church or in our daily lives, these stories are about our family.

A strange thing happens when we start reading our bibles and to see them as the living Word of God. When we get to the point where we can let the Holy Spirit bring us inside scripture we begin to really recognize it as our story. Suddenly all of these bizarre and exciting figures from the past look us in the eyes and we recognize our own reflections. We begin to see that we are like them and they are like us.

God is speaking to us all the time. Though not necessarily as the big booming voice we often see portrayed in movies and stories. God uses things like people, scripture, and even roosters to speak the truth into our lives. We can listen all we want, but until we are willing to become a people of the book, then God’s words will fall on deaf ears.

If we want to be biblically wise, we have to read our bibles. Amen.