Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Sea in My Hand?

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Last night I found myself holding the sea in my hands.
Now, I first need to point out that it was only the Barents Sea, which Wikipedia describes as “marginal” -- “marginal” being a technical term for territorial waters, with no disrespect intended…though how the Barents itself feels about the description is another question. (Its former name, the Murmans Sea, has a certain allure, until one realizes that it translates to, “The Sea of Norwegians”.)
The second, and even more critical, thing to note is that I wasn’t actually holding the Barents Sea. I was actually holding a few plastic pieces from a 3-D globe puzzle one of my sons is working on. The pieces had fallen on the floor and I had slipped them into my pocket while cleaning up. The pieces represented the Barents Sea – they weren’t the sea itself.
And now for the inevitable lesson.
As we carry our Bibles about, in our hands or in our heads, we can sometimes imagine that the mere possession of the book magically sanctifies us. The words on the page, or the smart phone, or the brain cell, seem to possess a talismanic power to lead us on the path of blessing. We have God’s word, and thus to some extent God, right in our hands.
I want to choose my words carefully hear, and assure the reader that my goals here are modest. I believe the Bible is God’s Word in a unique way. I am not getting into the question of whether the Scriptures simply contains the word, or whether it needs to be activated by the Spirit to become God’s word, or any of those questions which understandably keeps theologians up at night. All I am saying is that the words on the page gain their currency because they point to something greater than themselves: the reality of God and his kingdom.
Take the words, “Jesus is risen from the dead.” Five simple English words, with one English-ed Greek name itself derived from a Hebrew original. I hope you hear them as the stunning climax of the greatest story ever told. But that power comes not from the mere words, but from the fact that they point to the truth that God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead.
The fact that the words are sign pointing to something doesn’t diminish their value; it establishes their value. My puzzle-solving son remarked the other day that we ought simply to print out endless barrels money so people can have whatever they want. (Note to government officials and presidents of large banks: this is not actually a good idea.) I tried to explain with my own feeble economic understanding that the dollar bills only stand in for, or mark out, value; the paper points towards one’s labor or one’s land. So it is with words, at least in many instances: they point towards reality.
This is no idle academic musing. When we focus merely on the words in Scripture, and not on the reality they are gesturing towards, we can end up deluding ourselves with a “faith” that is nothing more than the barest assent to a few propositions. We need to recognize that God’s word is there to throw us into the reality of his kingdom, with all the peril and promise that holds. The word is there to point us to a God who actually does hold the Barents Sea, and the whole cosmos, in his almighty hand.

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