Always the Same, Yet Always New

Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018 || Lent 3B || John 2:13-22

One of the great joys of parenthood is getting to go back and watch movies with your children that you yourself loved as a child. We’ve done this a little bit with the twins, and there are many, many more to come as they get older. When you watch a children’s movie as an adult, you realize the filmmakers have an incredibly difficult job to do. They have to make a movie that appeals to children and that keeps parents from tearing their hair out while watching it. They do this by adding into their movies a layer of humor that sails right over kids’ heads and makes parents laugh out loud. And if not humor than deep meaning; and sometimes, in those rare movies, both humor and depth.

Disney’s Zootopia is a great example. Little kids love watching all the anthropomorphized animals walking around and talking to one another. Perhaps they might understand a little of the message of the movie, which celebrates stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and living in harmony in a diverse society. But there’s no way they’re going to get the joke about the mob boss Godfather character being a tiny rodent. Or the joke about sloths being employed by the DMV. Or any of a hundred other jokes that make Zootopia one of my favorite Disney movies. I watched it a few weeks ago without my kids.

The point here is that the movies we watched as children don’t change. (Except for the original Star Wars trilogy, which had a special edition come out in the late 90s with addition footage. I can’t even… But don’t get me started on that.) Suffice to say, most of the movies we watched as children don’t change. If I watch The Little Mermaid as an adult, I’m bound to pick up on humor I didn’t get when I was six. (I can’t say for sure because I haven’t watched it since I was six because it terrified me.)

The movies don’t change. But we do. We grow up and start to see all the humor and depth that make good children’s movies so wonderful. Now you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this? Here goes: the same phenomenon happens when we read the Bible. The text of the Bible does not change (at least beyond the fact that there are different translations), but we change. We are different each time we encounter a story of the Bible, and thus we have the opportunity to discover something new about God and about ourselves.

The Godly Play method that we use in our children’s ministry here at St. Mark’s is built on this fundamental truth. As children grow up in Godly Play, they hear the same stories multiple times, and we trust that each time they have reached a new developmental stage, which allows them deeper engagement with the stories. My three-year-olds can tell you the story of the Good Shepherd. It’s amazing to watch. Do they understand the story? On some level, yes, of course. And I am so looking forward to them reaching deeper and deeper understanding of the story as they grow.

Growing older is one way the unchanging stories of the Bible encounter us in new and different ways. But it’s not the only way. Every event and encounter and decision and disappointment and triumph and tragedy in our lives has the potential to change our understanding of the Bible. That’s why it is so important not to gloss over stories you think you know when reading the scriptures. Last week, I preached about the turning points in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. I don’t think I would have seen that in the text if I hadn’t also been reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which is about a time traveler sent back to stop Kennedy’s assassination.

In the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield explains this phenomenon when he talks about going to the city’s natural history museum. He says:

The best thing…in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finishing catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time…Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way…

Like the museum, the stories of the Bible don’t change. But we do. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ disciples get smacked right in the forehead with this reality. After Jesus drives the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple, the bystanders ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They think he’s speaking about the literal building, and so do his disciples. At least for the time being. Over two years later, after Jesus’ resurrection, they realize that he was speaking about his body the whole time. They hear those words, “In three days I will raise it up.” They hear them in a new way after the resurrection.

Through the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit, the Bible encounters us anew and afresh every time we sit down to read it. Sometimes we are older and wiser and therefore reach depths we never knew existed. Sometimes a story that meant something to us when we were young no longer sparks our interest. (That’s OK, by the way.) Sometimes an encounter with someone out in our daily lives will cause us to read a piece of the Bible differently. Sometimes we’ll hear a perspective we never considered before, which will break open pieces of scripture that had always been locked for us.

I urge you, as we continue through this Lenten season, to pull your Bible off the shelf at home. Dust it off if you have to. Pick a place and start reading. I’d advise you start with the Gospel of Mark. Only read a little bit a day. As you read, let the text encounter you. Let the well-known stories breathe with new energy, with new spirit. Imagine how your life was the last time you read those words. What has changed about you? And how have those changes impacted your understanding of the unchanging words of the Bible? If our scripture got stale, people would have stopped reading it long ago. But it doesn’t, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit infuses the Bible with life: the age old words are ever new because we are new every time we pick up the Bible and read.

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