The Word of God is Solid Ground

volume-2-pg-179Anabaptist Heritage Sunday 2016

First Mennonite Church, October 23, 2016

Grace Mennonite Church, November 20, 2016

II Kings 22

Hebrews 4:12-13

Gerald J. Mast

Before our youngest son was born, Carrie and I struggled to reach consensus on his name. We searched the scriptures for the right-sounding, right-feeling, right-defining name for the wiggling, kicking, and highly active bundle of life that was about to be birthed. Each of us had a fairly substantial list of biblical names that excited us. But there really was no overlap between these two lists.

And so we turned to the next most important book in any serious Mennonite household—the Martyrs Mirror—to see if it might contain a reconciling name. And, thanks be to God, there was one name in that big book of Dutch, German, and Swiss Anabaptist martyrs that appealed to both of us. So our son was named after the Anabaptist bookseller Joriaen Simons, whose life and witness led to a book-rescuing riot—one of my favorite stories in the Martyrs Mirror.

Like Josiah the young king of Judah, Joriaen Simons devoted his life to recovering and proclaiming and following the Word of God. As we heard in our scripture reading, Josiah embraced the discovery of a forgotten book in the storage room of the temple. This neglected book of the law helped the people of Judah to remember the Lord their God whose rule they had disregarded and whose deliverance from slavery they had squandered.

In the time of Joriaen Simons, the book of the law had been rediscovered in the scriptures that had been kept in the storage of monasteries and universities, unavailable for commoners to read and discuss. Using the new technologies of moveable type along with the knowledge of biblical languages, scholars like Martin Luther and William Tyndale gave the scriptures to people at a price they could afford and in language they could understand and discuss and debate. And in reading the scriptures, many people realized that they had forgotten the ways of God and the Word of God.

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of ninety five theses about the theology and practice of indulgences on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, a post that went viral and led to the transformation of European Christendom. The first thesis in Luther’s post says this: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying ‘Do penance…,’ wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence.”

Luther goes on to argue that the system of indulgences established by the church to monetize guilt trivialized the depth of God’s judgment, as well as the endurance of God’s everlasting mercy. God wants to restore our lives, now and forever, not just let us into heaven after we die by the skin of our teeth. God wants us to live in repentance, not just pay for our sin with money or good deeds. God means to put everything right in this world, not just keep chaos in check. This profound conviction discovered in the scriptures about God’s comprehensive justice and extravagant forgiveness is the central message of the Protestant Reformation, as I understand it. And the ground for this conviction is, as Luther acknowledged in theses 53 and 54, the hearing of the Word of God.

We can see the power of this knowledge of the Word of God in the life of our Anabaptist faith ancestor Joriaen Simons. In a letter from prison that he wrote to his son, he recalled the iniquity of his life before encountering the Word of God. He acknowledged having been proud, selfish, deceitful, and drunken. He confessed to having tried to seduce his neighbor’s daughter. But then, he writes, he began to read the scriptures and to “take the Word of God as my counselor.” This encounter with the Word of God completely changed Joriaen’s life: “I abandoned my ease, voluntarily and uncompelled, and entered upon the narrow way, to follow Christ, my Head, well knowing that if I should follow him to the end, I should not walk in darkness.”

Joriaen’s desire to be a new divine creature who had converted to a “pious, penitient, and godly life,” led to his identification with the Anabaptist movement and to his imprisonment, along with Clement Dirks and Mary Joris in the Haarlem prison at St. John’s gate in 1557. Mary Joris died while giving birth in prison. Clement and Joriaen were executed by fire on April 26, 1557, forty years after Luther posted the ninety-five theses.   According to the court order that is printed in the Martyrs Mirror, the Haarlem authorities condemned Clement and Joriaen because they had been rebaptized, because they held pernicious views about the sacraments and ceremonies of the church, and because they sold, read, and discussed false books. The sentence of execution called them “disturbers of the common peace and of the Christian religion.”

Joriaen Simons, Clement Dirks, and Mary Joris were like many Christian believers in the Reformation era who heard the Word of God and obeyed it—as witnessed by the thousands of other testimonies in the Martyrs Mirror, but also in the martyr books of Catholics and Protestants during that violent and uncertain time. Tonight at Bluffton University in Ramseyer Auditorium, beginning at 7 p.m., there will be a performance of a readers theatre drama about the witness of another Anabaptist martyr—Jacques d’Auchy—whose confession against all criticism by the authorities of European civil religion and official Christendom was that “I have not forsaken the Word of God, for my faith is founded on the Word of God, and not upon human beings, nor upon human doctrines.” I encourage you to take some time tonight to attend this performance by Bluffton University students and to be inspired by Jacques d’Auchy’s witness.

Today I want to reflect on this Word of God that so inspired and changed the lives of our faith ancestors. What did Joriaen Simons mean when he said that he took the Word of God for his counselor?

For Protestants as well as for Anabaptists in the Reformation era, knowing the Word of God is closely identified with reading and hearing the Bible. In the words of scripture, the Word of God speaks across the centuries, displaying the revelation of God’s Word to people in changing settings and amidst new challenges. The covenant that God made with Abraham is a covenant that is also made with us when we read the Bible and receive God’s promises. The message given by the angel of the Lord to Hagar is a promise of survival and significance that is good news for us as well when we find it in the Bible. The call Moses heard from the burning bush and the law he received on Mt. Sinai invite us through the scriptures also to speak truth to power and to remember the Lord our God who brought us out of slavery from Egypt. And the invitation to Mary of Nazareth to bear and birth the Son of God is an invitation to receive and offer Jesus Christ in our bodies and in our burdens. With Mary we may magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior. And with the disciples, we may respond to the call of Jesus Christ to lay down our lives and our weapons to follow after him.

Indeed, the Word of God speaks to us in the Bible. But for Anabaptists like Joriaen Simons the Word of God is not limited to the words of scripture. The Word of God is Jesus Christ, as revealed in scripture, but also as revealed in the creation around us and in our own inner experiences of sacred knowledge. Hans Hut, for example wrote that in the thriving and suffering of the creatures all around us, “nothing is signified and preached other than Christ the crucified one alone, not only Christ the head but the whole Christ with all his members.” Hans Denck famously confessed that “Holy Scripture I hold above all human treasure but not as high as the Word of God that is living, powerful, and eternal—unattached and free of all the elements of this world.”

Denck is right. The Word of God is alive and on the loose and it will not be constrained by our theological management strategies. It will not stay between the covers of our Bibles—silent until we bother to open them and begin to read. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes the Word of God as living and active, sharper than any two edged sword. It will overtake us, finally, because it is the source of our life and will remain after our death—the hope of the resurrection. In the time remaining I’d like to discuss three characteristics of this living and active Word of God, testified to in the scriptures and made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.

THE CREATING WORD

First, we know that the Word of God is a creating Word—the Word by which the Lord God spoke into existence the heavens and the earth. By the Word of God, a hundred billion galaxies and space itself exploded into being from nothing or next to nothing, expanding furiously from the infinitely dense and incomprehensibly tiny singularity that physicists believe contained all the mass and space and time that exists in the universe. By the Word of God, wiggling, kicking, and highly active bundles of life are birthed into existence from the desire that joins bodies and multiplies them. By the Word of God, texts are formed from letters, sentences from words, chapters from paragraphs, and the exploding and expanding and birthing universe is named and ordered and communicated through speech and writing and singing and painting and dancing.

Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman has suggested that this powerful and serendipitous creativity that brings worlds into existence—both in physical space and in our imaginative experiences—is the divine mystery to which we refer when we say the word God. According to Kaufman, this divine mystery is most fully expressed in the creativity and novelty displayed in the life and teachings of Jesus. It seems to me that this is a helpful way of understanding the claims made in the first chapter of the gospel of John that in Jesus Christ, the Word of God became flesh and dwelled among us. John says that from the Word of God, Jesus Christ, all things came into being, and that what came into being through this Word was life and light that the darkness will not overcome. The Word of God is a creating and sustaining and enlightening and life-giving word.

THE DIVIDING WORD

The Word of God is also a dividing word. In creating the heavens and the earth, the Word of God separates light from darkness, day from night, and land from water. When God calls a people forth from the nations to be a light and a blessing, they are commanded to reject the practices of enslavement and violence practiced by the world’s empires. From the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul, the Word of God invites us: “come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you…and ye shall be my sons and daughters” (II Cor. 6:17 KJV). Jesus confirms the divisiveness of the Word of God when he sends his disciples out to proclaim the Good News in Matthew 10. He quotes the prophet Micah: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” In this time of church conflict, many of us can confirm that the good news divides our families, but also our denomination: congregation against congregation, conference against conference, one’s foes are members of one’s own church family.

But, lest we become to confident that we are on the right side of gospel conflict, in the text from Hebrews 4 we learn that the Word of God not only sets people against each other, but that it gets inside of our very skin, turning us against ourselves “piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow, it is able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart” (12). Much as we would like to hide the sin that clings to even our well-intended actions; much as we want to pretend to goodness, to life without guilt or confession, the dividing and judging Word of God will not rest until we are “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to which we must render an account” (13).

In the story of King Josiah and the recovery of the book of the law, the prophetess Huldah, like all faithful prophets, makes it clear that catastrophe follows from ignoring the Word of God; there will be hell to pay when the people of God forget God. The more mild-mannered Gordon Kaufman, in his book, Jesus and Creativity, restates this judgment against human forgetfulness in a polite way: “we humans should always seek to live and act in response to the creativity going on in the world roundabout us and in our lives; for if we do not so live and act, we will soon be out of tune and out of touch with what is really happening in the world” (8). Gordon Kaufman is worried about the same catastrophe of forgetfulness as the prophetess Hulda.

But the prophetess Huldah, like all faithful prophets, has good news to follow the bad news: “because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord…and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me…I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” (II Kings 22:19-20). Martin Luther had it right, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying ‘Do penance…,’ wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence.” Joriaen Simons also was on the right track when he converted to a “pious, penitent, and godly life.” Calling out and confessing sin is the faithful response to judgment and the first step toward the peace that the Word of God seeks to fulfill in the world.

We should acknowledge here that calling out and confessing the iniquities of our communities and of our own hearts leads to both peace and disaster. When we acknowledge the sin that has been uncovered by the Word of God, there is often conflict and suffering that follows. In the story of King Josiah’s reformation, the response to the light of the law includes a great deal of interreligious violence: altars to the gods of the Moabites and the Samaritans are desecrated and their priests killed. In the image from the Martyrs Mirror printed on the cover of our bulletin, we also see suffering and violence: Joriaen and Clement have been executed on the left, the priests and the magistrates are fleeing the riotous crowd of protesters in the background, and in the foreground, controversial books are being burned—no doubt some of them translations of the Bible considered to be false and heretical.

There is suffering in this image, yet also liberty: books and Bibles flying through the air like the birds of the sky, finding their way into the hands of readers hungry for knowledge, yearning to encounter God’s Word written. What a dramatic picture of the dividing and discerning Word of God on the loose, inviting repentance and bringing both salvation and chaos!

THE RECONCILING WORD

But the Word of God does not stop with the catastrophe of judgment. The Word of God is also and finally a reconciling Word, a Word that restores what has been broken and gathers what has been scattered. The story of Josiah’s reformation anticipates this reconciliation even amidst the killing of the priests and the raiding of shrines and tombs described at the end of II Kings chapter 23. We read that during these raids one tomb was left alone: that of the man of God from Judah and the prophet from Samaria.

This is a reference to the story in First Kings 13 of a man of God from the southern kingdom of Judah visiting his enemies in the northern kingdom of Israel three hundred years earlier during the rule of Jeroboam. The man of God—a faithful Judean—prophesied that neglect of God would lead to disaster, including the destruction of the shrines and tombs at Bethel. Of course, King Jeroboam, like most people who are in charge of earthly kingdoms, didn’t much care for this kind of prophecy. He reached out his hand in anger toward the prophet from Judah and received a withered hand in return. At this point his anger turned to repentance and thanks to the prayers of the prophet, the king’s hand was restored. When King Jeroboam invited the prophet from Judah to eat and drink with him, the prophet shunned him: no eating with the ungodly enemies in the north—those who would eventually be known as Samaritans.

But then the prophet from Judah received a second dinner invitation. An old prophet from Bethel invited him to share a meal. At first the Judean prophet said no, but then, in a risky act of grace, gave up shunning and sat down together at the table to eat and drink with his enemy—the Bethel prophet. This cross-cultural act of reconciliation was indeed risky: a lion ended up killing the man of God from Judah before he could return home. But, refusing to be defeated by violence and death, the prophet from Bethel buried the prophet from Judah in his own grave and requested to be buried with him at the time of his death. During the violence and destruction of Josiah’s reformation, three hundred years later, the bones of these enemies who had become friends—Jew and Samaritan—were left as they were, gathered together in their tomb, reconciled and at peace.

As Christians we believe that the reconciling Word is made most visible in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ—a Jewish rabbi who famously shared water and conversation with a Samaritan woman and who loved and forgave his enemies, even unto his death on a cross. According to the writer of the epistle to the Ephesians, this crucified and resurrected body of Jesus Christ has become our peace, breaking down the dividing wall, putting to death hostility, and reconciling all of God’s children to God in one body (2:13-16). By faith, we know that this reconciling Word of God brings together those who have been divided: Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics. And so we pray for the unity of the body of Christ even now, after nearly five hundred years of Reformation schism and division—some of which has illuminated the truth of God’s Word and much of which has also led to violence and suffering and death.

I conclude by observing with Karl Barth that the Word of God not only reconciles hostile groups; it also makes peace within us, comforting and consoling and restoring our freedom. In the first volume of the great Church Dogmatics—which is focused on the doctrine of the Word of God—Barth reflects on what it means to bind ourselves to the Word of God. The Word of God bears our sins, when we confess and acknowledge them, and leaves us free from the anxiety that comes from the knowledge of good and evil. When we pray, “thy will be done,” according to Barth, we are admitting that “the burden of my own and of others’ sins does not lie upon me. It lies solely and entirely upon Jesus Christ, upon the Word of God” (I.2: 275).

Giving our lives over to the Word of God is a defining act of freedom, one that accepts the Word of God as a trustworthy and reliable counselor, just as Joriaen Simons did. When we turn our lives over to the Word of God in this way our relationship with the Word of God, Jesus Christ, becomes personal and, to use Barth’s words, “consists always in our knowing and saying and confirming and attesting and living out the truth: that He careth for you” (I.2: 275).

Brothers and sisters, the creating, dividing, and reconciling Word of God is solid ground, “no source of freedom more profound,” to use the words of the old Anabaptist hymn we are about to sing (HWB 314). As it was for King Josiah, for the prophetess Huldah, for Joriaen Simons, for Clement Dirks, and for Mary Joris, may it also be in our lives, God’s Word our sure foundation. Amen.

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