Sermon: Half Truths – “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”

mainslide-half-truthsThis is the fourth in a five week series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths. I particularly enjoyed researching this saying. I hope you will enjoy this sermon. As always, please feel free to share any feedback you may have! – Jonathan

Half Truths: God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
September 4, 2016

1 Peter 2:13-14 (NLT)

13 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, 14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

One of the greatest things I have experienced in my career as a paramedic has been that I have been able to have some great partners. I’ve had a few that I would rather forget and many who I am grateful for and will never forget. One of those great partners was Brother Mike. Brother Mike is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor who serves a small church near my hometown. At the time he was only drawing a part time salary so he worked at the ambulance service on my shift to pay his bills. As we were both pastors we were regularly put together. We always seemed to have unique opportunities to minister to many people we would come into contact with and we also got to have many great conversations about our faith, about God himself and about the Bible. As he is Baptist and I’m Methodist, you can imagine that while we did agree on many things we had some interesting conversations about the views we held differently.

One such conversation happened when we were on our way back to town from a transfer We were talking about scripture and how to best understand it. I had just taken a workshop on the various ways we can look at the bible and one of the things the presenter covered heavily was how John Wesley used scripture itself, tradition, reason, and experience to determine if what he was hearing, reading, or believing was true. Brother Mike listened to me and said, “Well, that sounds nice but I’ve always been of the opinion that we should just take the Bible as it is, unvarnished, and as God’s word. He said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This was not the first time I had heard this expression. Being in Mississippi and growing up around a lot of Baptists, one heard this saying quite a bit. In light of what I had been learning through my own study of how to understand scripture, this was the first occasion where I can remember truly pondering the meaning of this saying.

During this series on Half Truths, we have been looking at sayings that sound biblical but really aren’t, at least not in the way we say them. I acknowledge that with you knowing how I have treated the other sayings you may be growing a little uncomfortable right now, perhaps because you think that perhaps I’m going to make a case for why we can’t trust the Bible. I assure you, that’s not what I’m out to do. But what I do want to challenge you to do today is to think about how you have understood scripture and perhaps to consider a new way to think about what we read and hear about. The point that I want to make is this: We are not meant to check our brains at the church door and just take things at face value. It’s ok to question and to wrestle with things we read in scripture. God gave us brains and I believe we should use them to our fullest ability, including when we read the Bible. To simply take the Bible at face value and chalk it up to “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” shows a very simplistic view of the Bible. We don’t truly get the message, we simply get a few grapes off the vine and call it good.

Perhaps you were raised in a similar fashion as me: If something was in the Bible, you better not dare question it. I can remember when I was growing up that I would ask someone what something in the Bible meant or why it was there and more often than not I was simply told that it’s a sin to questions something we read in the Bible because it’s God’s word. I certainly believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word. But I don’t believe this means that things we see within the pages of these books are not above being questioned, pondered and wrestled with. Think of exercise: If you want bigger muscles, you have to exercise them. When you lift weights you are pushing against a force putting resistence against your body. By pushing against this resistance you’re growing stronger and can exercise with more and more weight. The next thing you know, you’re in a great shape and can even keep going.

The same is true when we flex our spiritual muscles and push against the resistance of questions and doubt. When we wrestle with the things in the Bible that we may not understand or perhaps even make us uncomfortable, we are opening ourselves to truly hearing God’s voice and the message he wants us to receive from his word. As we continue to wrestle, to pray, ponder, and study we grow stronger in our faith and in our knowledge of God’s will and nature. It’s ok to question and wrestle. Doing such exercise is how we get in better shape.

The short passage I read out of 1 Peter 2 is one of those passages that is often wrestled with. If we take literally and completely at face value what we read in Peter’s letter we may believe that God wants us to bow down and kowtow to all of our earthly leaders no matter what, period, full stop. We can think that it’s our God-decreed responsibility to, without question, follow the commands of any earthly leader no matter who this person is or what they ask us to do. But what if the leader is a dictator like Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who starves his people to death while getting rich off of their backs. His latest shenanigans involve his education minister who fell asleep during a meeting of the Communist leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong Un was so incensed by this transgression that he executed two high level North Korean officials… with a large caliber anti-aircraft gun. If we take 1 Peter 2 literally, are we to believe that this is someone worthy of giving our undying obedience to?

The simple answer is, of course not! No tyrant should ever be given this kind of affection and God certainly wouldn’t ordain such actions. Such is the danger of taking such passages literally at face value without regard to its true meaning. Taking 1 Peter 2 literally has several dangers, including that we could in theory use it to force someone to bow down to tyranny or, perhaps even worse, to express a notion that God condones such dictators and their actions. Yes, that people like Kim Jong Un, Hitler, and all of the worst dictators throughout history were put in their positions by God and that he orchestrated their actions. This is, of course, untrue and can cast God in a poor and false light. To be clear: God does not do these things. Such is not God’s nature!

We are not people called to check our brains at the church house door and leave them there. Christians are called to use our intellect to figure these things out and, yes, this even applies to when we come to worship and when we study the Bible. We have all sorts of tools for doing this, from commentaries to study Bibles and so much more. When I prepare for a sermon I not only study over the scripture itself extensively but I also take time to pray over it to ask God’s revelation for it. I also consult multiple commentaries, dictionaries, handbooks, and often look at Greek or Hebrew interlinear Bibles, which show the English and original languages in order to flesh it all out. My sermons may seem long but believe it or not they only average about 20 minutes or so. In order to prepare for that 20 minute sermon, I spend many hours per week in study.

If we were even intended to look at scripture through the lens of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” then me spending all that time in prayer, preparation and writing in order to be standing up here preaching about God’s word would be a waste of time for both me and you. All we would have to do is read our Bibles and just let that be that. It’s really wrestling with scripture and trying to figure out the true message that draws us closer to God. Grappling and meditating on God’s word is the stuff that helps us to grow in our faith and in our understanding about God. It’s also in the course of this exercise that we become better equipped as disciples who will go from this place to make other disciples.

If we want to believe in terms of scripture that God said it then we totally remove the human equation from scripture. In other words, we remove the humanity of the authors who wrote down these words under divine inspiration. We have to remember that these were human beings who were inspired by God to write and to tell of things they were feeling in their very souls. To believe that this is God always speaking through them is to believe that God was dictating a message to robotic secretaries in this world and I just do not see how that could be true. Scripture itself does not indicate that this is the case. There are certainly a lot of places where the writer indicates that the words are from God but the vast majority of the time the authors make it clear that they are writing their own thoughts and ideas about what God’s will is for mankind. Even Paul never claimed that he and God were of one mind, Paul in several places very plainly states that the words written are his and his alone. To state that “God said it” means we totally remove humanity from scripture.

Yes, God inspired scripture. God is sometimes quoted in scripture. But did God dictate every word of the Bible? Not very likely. To simply say that “God said it” when it comes to any given piece of scripture just is not usually true and oversimplifies the message that scripture contains.

A similar thing happens when we say “That settles it.” We oversimplify the work that it takes to really get at the heart of what scripture is saying to us. It takes away the important work which has been done in translating from the original languages and trying to figure out what the author intended for the reader to understand. Let’s take a look at John 3:16, which I’m sure every single one of us can at least paraphrase. In the verse where perish is rendered, the Greek word is apollumi and it can indeed mean perish. But it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each one of those possibilities can make the message of the verse slightly different depending on which translation one decides is most appropriate given the context and other factors.

Even Jesus at times did not agree with the traditional rendering of texts in the ancient Jewish tradition. How often in the gospels is it recorded him saying something like, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…?” Jesus was doing a type of push back against traditional interpretation called midrash, where rabbis would attempt to explain what a text was talking about. As the apostles studied and debated about the meaning of scripture, they also realized that the authors of these writings were, at the end of the day, humans. Even under the inspiration of God they were not immune from bringing their own experiences and circumstances into their writings. If we were in the room with them and simply said, “Well God said it, I believe it, that settles it” they may well look at us as if we’re crazy. They simply did not subscribe to that notion. The same goes for the majority of the early church fathers.

We can all sit around all day and debate how to best determine what a passage of scripture is saying and how we should apply it to our lives. Even when we disagree about these methods, I believe we can all agree on one thing. Jesus gave us the best lens through which we can weigh out what scripture is saying when he gave us the greatest commandment, to love God with all our soul, mind, body, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Does the way we interpret a passage line up to that? Does the way in which we feel we are called to apply the scripture to our way of living line up with loving God and loving our neighbor? If the answers are no then we still have some work to do. We need to get some more exercise. Let’s make a new commitment to stretch and strengthen our spiritual muscles. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Amen.

Sermon: Half Truths – “Everything Happens for a Reason”

mainslide-half-truthsI have been intending to post this sermon for most of the week but life kept getting in the way. This is the first in a five week series of sermons inspired by Half Truths by Rev. Adam Hamilton. During this series at Shiloh, we are taking a look at a “Christian cliche” which sounds biblical but really is not. That is not to say that some of these don’t have at least some element of truth but sometimes these sayings are (1) not biblical and (2) can cause great harm. This one in particular hits home for me so I was glad to do it first. This coming Sunday we are looking at “God Helps Those who Help Themselves.” I will try to post it sooner! I hope you receive a blessing from this sermon. Please feel free to leave any feedback you would like to – Jonathan

Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 14, 2016

GENESIS 50:20 (NLT) – You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.

ROMANS 8:28 (NLT) – And we know that God causes everything to work together[m] for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Most of you know about my daughter’s death soon after she was born. Among the many things I remember about that day was the outpouring of love and the many text messages and phone calls I got. Most I honestly don’t remember much about but I do remember a couple that stood out because of what they said. The gist of what these messages said was “so sorry to hear of what happened. It must have been God’s will. There must have been some reason why she died. It’s all part of God’s plan.

Let me stop right here for a moment and ask you to do me a favor: Please, never say anything like those statements to anyone who is in the midst of tragedy. Often these words are meant well and the person saying them is simply trying to provide some kind of reminder of God being present. But to me, these words provide no comfort and can do great harm to one’s soul. And not to mention, do we really want to paint God as a celestial bully who would willfully take someone’s child from them or give someone cancer? If we understand that God’s very nature and ways are only of love then we simply can not think that these things are true. Here’s the spoiler for today’s message: God is not in the business of willfully causing pain in order to prove a point or to make some kind of chain of events occur. Simply, bad things just happen. But this is not to say that God can’t or doesn’t redeem that bad thing for a good purpose.

When we use the logic that everything that happens is because God orchestrated it or that he has some purpose, we can then make an argument that everything is God’s will. If a marriage ends in divorce because one of the spouses committed adultery, did that happen because God intended for the marriage to end before it even began? When someone makes the decision to shoot elementary school students, does this mean those kids had to die by the actions of the shooter as part of a grant celestial plan that God came up with? We can even go down the line and say that God willed it for Mississippi State to lose to Ole Miss in football yet again and for UK to not make the Final Four last year.

When we say that everything happens for a reason or we make claims that something happening was simply God’s will, we are essentially passing the buck on any sort of personal responsibility that we have for our actions. Take the above events: If we simply chalk them up to just being God’s will or he having a divine purpose for making these things happen, that means we have no responsibility. That means that the spouse who cheated didn’t actually do anything wrong because they were just acting according to God’s will. This means that the shooter was merely an instrument of God used to continue his plan. This means that Mississippi State and UK have no responsibility for their not playing well enough to win the games I mentioned because God simply did not intend for them to win.

In our scriptures for today we have one from the old testament and one from the new testament which might seem like a night and day difference. These scriptures are sometimes used by people who defend that God has everything planned in advance and that we are all just players in his great drama. The reading out of Genesis 50 of toward the end of the story of Joseph. Perhaps you know the story. Joseph was beloved by his father. His brothers were jealous so they sold him into slavery to the Egyptians In spite of his being a slave he became a trusted advisor of the pharaoh and helped the Egyptians avoid the consequences of a famine which was revealed to Joseph in a dream. Joseph eventually ends up helping his brothers who sold him into slavery and they were reconciled. Hearing all of this, I can see where it would be easy to conclude that Joseph was trapped in a hole in the ground and sold to the Egyptians in order to prevent them and their neighbors from going hungry. There is a strong case to be made for this innocent man being sold into slavery being part of God’s plan. Which brings us to the new testament reading.

Paul wrote Romans when he was on his way to being put on trial in from of the emperor. Paul was no stranger to conflict, in fact his ministry is marked with it time and time again. So Paul is in the midst of one of these conflicts and pens this letter in which he states that God works all things out for the good of Himself and his people. This is another scripture in which people sometimes try to defend the notion that God has somehow planned everything. But note what Paul did not say: He did say that God has arranged everything according to his will. He did not say that God has caused him to be taken into chains and put on trial to face death. He did not say that God made him go to prison. Paul, instead, says that God works it all out in the end. This is an important difference to take note of because Paul is not placing the blame on God for his being under arrest, rather he is acknowledging that God will use it. To say it another way, God doesn’t cause innocent people to go to jail, he doesn’t cause people to die of cancer, and he does not cause people to be killed in senseless tragedies. But when these things do happen, he make the evil thing bring about good for the Kingdom of God.

Part of the reason so many of us have this notion of God is because of a theologian named John Calvin. Calvin was very much against the theology of the Catholic church and the argument could be made that almost everything they were for, he was against. His understanding of protestant theology was outlined in what is considered to be one of the classics of Christians theology called The Institutes of Christian Religion. Calvin was a proponent of a outlook called theological determinism. In a nutshell, Calvin believed that God is sovereign and has dominion over everything in the world, including everything that happens right down to the cells in our body replicating. Calvin’s argument was that if something occurred that was not God’s will then God could not be sovereign and have dominion. Calvin also believed in a principle called predestination, which meant that not only did God know everything that would happen in history but that he actually planned everything. Further, Calvin stated that this included God not knowing but actually choosing who would and would not be saved in in his presence forever. In other words, Calvin felt that God planned every single thing that would ever happen, including the fact that you’re here today at Shiloh and that God has even chosen who will and will not be forgiven of their sins. Calvin’s view is that God has picked and chosen who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had similar beliefs to Calvin in several areas. He even made a statement which said, in essence that Methodism was within a breath of Calvinism. However, Wesley disagreed with Calvin in one major area: Predestination. Wesley believed that from the very beginning humankind was given free will, or the ability to make our own choices. Wesley believed that God knows how we will decide but that he does not actually cause us to make certain decisions. While Calvin believed that a person could not choose to trust God – rather that God would in a sense force them to believe through what he called irresistible grace – Methodist belief is that we decide for ourselves to trust Christ. Instead of irresistible grace, Wesley believed that God gives us prevenient grace, or grace which comes before which God uses to reach out to us humans and enable us to say yes to his justifying and sanctifying grace. Wesley believed that we have free will instead of having our will dictated to us.

The Bible lends support to this notion from the very beginning. In Genesis we read that God made the universe, the world, and everything in it and when he had placed Adam and Eve in the garden he gave them dominion over it. This does not sound like a micromanaging, puppet string pulling God to me. Instead it sounds like that God’s intention was to be present but not to interfere in the day to day stuff. God certainly did not intend for Adam and Eve to disobey him. Why would God compel people to disobey him? The logic simply does not stand up to the test. Simply put, God is not in the business of micromanagement and he certainly is not a puppet master. God also does not cause bad things to happen.

We want to believe that everything happens for a reason, that especially when bad things happen it’s all for a greater purpose. This simply just is not true. Bad things happen for a variety of reasons but sometimes they just happen. But they do not happen because God willed it or because he wanted to prove a point. God does not give people cancer. God does not cause children to die. God does not cause any sort of tragedy. But when tragedy does strike, let us remember that God is in the midst of it and he is ready to take that evil, ugly thing and make something beautiful come out of it. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirt – amen.