Below is the script from which I preached a recent sermon on “Making Sense of the Bible and Violence.” The Sermon was preached in the context of a series called Making Sense of the Bible based on the book of the same title by Adam Hamilton.
At the beginning you will see a list of traveling car games that will not make much sense. They were used as reminder points for me as I told an introductory story illustrating our (humans) varied points of relationship with violence. The main point was that we are both entertained by violence and sickened by it too.
After the introductory point, the script begins to make more sense as a readable sermon.
Sermon feedback was very positive. I sense a large number of our congregation have struggled with the problems of biblical literalism for some time. In this sermon, and in this series, they have discovered some freedom.
I post it here as a record of the preach
We have an interesting relationship with violence, don’t we?
Think about it for a minute with me as I give you an example.
License Plate Game
The daddy of all car games – Punch Buggy
Jackson – caring, loving, non-violent soul (thank God)
– weak punch
– teaching him to punch – a rite of passage
We have an interesting relationship with violence.
We kind of enjoy it on one level
We are entertained by violence and we like it on one level
And we abhor it on another. We looked on in disbelief on September 11th 2001, as some individuals took it upon themselves to commit an horrendous act of violence which ended up changing our world.
Personally speaking, I have had a changing relationship with violence.
Growing up in a violent, conflict ridden country like Northern Ireland
– It normalized violence – the new reports, the hatred, the complete devaluation of human life was all just normal, and not shocking.
– It never made me bat an eyelid as a boy. It was just what humans do. Right?
– But i am not a little boy any more.
– I have made two wee humans of my own.
– I have seen the devastating effects of violence on a person’s life and I have concluded that, in fact, violence does nothing but beget more violence in the world.
– Dunkirk movie
– compelling watch, but not entertaining
– found it hard work because I was grieving it – grieving the violent depictions of those moments in human history.
– I was grieving what human beings are capable of doing to one another in the name of politics, territory, economy; in the name of war.
We have a strange relationship with violence.
We are entertained by it.
It is somewhat normalized in our world.
And yet we abhor it.
We never want to be the victims of violence. I imagine we never want to perpetrate violence either.
As humans, we have a strange, mixed up relationship with violence.
And, for sure, it can seem that the Bible does too.
We spend a lot of time in church reading in the NT about Jesus who is the very image of God.
We reflect on Jesus the Prince of Peace
– Jesus the one who said love your enemies and pray for them.
– Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek
– Jesus who will turn swords into ploughshares and spears to pruning hooks.
– Jesus who said blessed are the peacemakers.
But we are people of the whole book.
Our story does not simply start in the New Testament. Our story starts at the very beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. As we have said in the last number of weeks, our story, as humans, is found in the story of Israel and their relationship with God.
In that story we see a God who is loving and compassionate and forgiving of Israel.
In that story we see a God who is willing to rescue his people from slavery.
In that story we see a God who is willing to make a piece of land available to these people; the Promised Land.
In that story we see a God, who they report, was willing to completely annihilate the occupants of that piece of land in order to give it to Israel.
Time and time again, the writers of the Old Testament testify to a God who regularly would take sides in a fight, and who would willingly wipe out the opposition – men, women, children, animals…
We encounter a God who, on initial reading of the words in the Old Testament, seems like a bit of a monster.
So how do we make sense of that?
I am going to begin to sound like a bit of a broken record in this series, but it all comes back to what your starting point with Scripture is.
If we take a literalist position on Scripture, that is that God dictated each and every word of the Bible as we know it today, and that there are no faults, contradictions or discrepancies there in, then we can conclude that God is a violent God, and that God does love and come alongside some humans more than others.
We can also conclude that since we are made in God’s image, and God uses violence, then it is okay for us to be violent too, because God is or was.
And finally we can also conclude that God is not the same yesterday, today and forever as the Bible says God is, because the images of God that we read in the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different in nature that one can do nothing but conclude that these are either different God’s, or else the one God of the Bible has an absolutely confused identity.
Now if we are Biblical literalists, then we simply accept all this. We accept the violence of God, by saying that God is God and God can choose to use whatever means God desires to get the job done. God can give and God can take as God pleases. If God did it that way, then thats just the way it is, and we can rejoice that God chose us and not the others, right?
But, like I have said already, Biblical literalism can get us into trouble.
If we are literalists then we better not be eating any shell fish. There’s a law against that.
If we are literalists then we better hope our children are not unruly, because the Bible commands the death penalty for such rebellion.
If we are literalists then we better hope our boss doesn’t want us to work on the Sabbath because that offense also warrants the death penalty.
And then there is already mentioned problem of Jesus, for the literalist. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, according to the writer of the letter to the Colossians. If you want to see God, then look to Jesus because God the Son is one with God the Father. But Jesus, God the Son, is night and day different from the God we read of in the Old Testament.
So the first thing that we have to do is remember that the Bible is a complex collection of ancient inspired writing. It is the writings of people in very different times, in which they seek to communicate their understanding of God and God’s involvement in their lives. In essence, when we read the Scripture and are beginning to try to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament, we must remember the absolute humanity of the authors, and therefore the humanity of the text. These were human authors, with human experiences, in a human culture and a historical context different to our own. When we read these tough and violent texts we must do the work of understanding the world that was being written about – a world very different to our own world in these days.
You see, when we remember the humanity of the authors it becomes possible to remember that they were likely writing to represent what they thought about God, rather than than what God actually told them to say.
When they won a violent battle victory, of course they were going to say that God was with them and God gave them that victory. That’s what we do as humans who believe in the divine. In another movie about the military that I watched recently, there is a part where the Captain of the platoon is giving a rousing speech to his men, and when he is done he invites the chaplain to come and say a prayer with them; to invoke the mighty hand of God to protect them and go before them.
When Israel won a hard fought victory, or when the Hebrew people took control of the Promised land at great cost to the human life which had existed there before hand, God was given the glory and God was given the praise because God had given them the victory.
Make no mistake, friends, the first century Ancient Near Eastern world was a world in which conquest and conflict between tribes and nations was common. This was a violent world. Therefore the writers of the ancient works that we today call Scripture had to write in order to make sense of God in the context of a violent world filled with violent and power hungry humans.
And this world is the same in the New Testament. In the NT world it is the time of the Roman Empire – a battle happy and quite blood thirsty, conquesting empire. In the New Testament and in the gospels in particular, perhaps the best example of the violent world that it still was is in the fact that crucifixion was still an accepted form of criminal punishment. The human bent toward violence in Biblical times is absolutely witnessed to in the gospel accounts of the passion, crucifixion and death of Christ Jesus.
There’s that name again. The name that we can’t get away from.
You see Jesus is the fullest and most fathomable expression of God that we can ever look to. When we look to Jesus, we are looking at God, because Jesus is God the Son – the very Word of God. John’s Gospel states that – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the very beginning God.” The two cannot be separated and that is why, Adam Hamilton argues, and i stand with him on this, we must read the words of the Biblical text through the lens of the person, ministry, heart and words of Jesus Christ. That means that when we read a passage in the Bible that seems contrary to the life, ministry and Kingdom message of Jesus, who is the Word of God, we are being invited to ask questions and to do the work of making sense of the passage in light of who God has testified to being in Christ Jesus.
So today, I put across the argument, which you might disagree with, that God is in nature and essence loving, good, compassionate and merciful. God seeks peace in human relationships and God grieves when we attack, maim and hurt one another. Today i put it to you that the violence attributed to God in the Bible is actually the violence of sinful human beings whose hearts perennially struggle to be in control of the world around them; whose hearts are power hungry and are willing to become violent in the pursuit of power and control.
Jesus invites us to declare that God is King and to surrender control. Jesus invites his followers not to the violent way of conquest and conflict, but to the way of peace-making and non-violence. In fact when we look at the cross we see that not only is Jesus non-violent, but in fact Jesus submits himself to the violence of humans. Jesus submits himself to a violent death at the hands of humans in order to show them that in God, death has no victory or sting; that death does not win; that in God we find life in all its complete; we find peace.
How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?
We remember the times which were being written about – times very different to our own.
We remember the humanity of the writers and that in their humanity they were doing their best to testify to God.
We remember that they were interpreting the times around them with the tools they had in their box – the tools of a context and culture which was bloody and violent in a way that our context and culture is not.
We remember that we can only interpret the seeming violent God of the OT by looking through the lens of Jesus, the Word in the NT.
In this sermon I am not trying to excuse the violence by saying that this is just the way things were back in the day.
Rather, in this sermon I am trying to give you a framework within which you might begin to make sense of this difficult theme in Scripture.
In this sermon, and in every sermon, I am trying to point you to Jesus – the very image of God here on earth; the name above all names; the Prince of peace; our rock and our redeemer, who bore the violence of sinful man so that all of us may know freedom; so that all of us may know first hand the love of God; so that all of us might experience in Christ the transforming grace that calls us each to die to ourselves and rise up to new life in Christ
I am trying to point you to Jesus as the only lens through which we must interpret Scripture and the world around us.
How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?
We develop a framework for understanding it by understanding the humanity of the authors and the culture and context of the world they inhabited and were trying to make sense of, of course. But ultimately we look to Jesus as our master and we hear Jesus’ say “Blessed are the Peacemakers…Love your enemies and pray for them…turn the other cheek.