Hot News from Tim’s
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Reading: Timothy 3:1-17
I have breaking news from Tim’s, a report from the City of Geneva, as of today, Protestant ministers will be able to read Scripture and say prayers in city hall. This is an outstanding day particularly for John Calvin. The reporter stated that 1559 is a most progressive year. So much so that the whole city is in awe. This is old news, but it ain’t fake news. In fact today is the five hundred and tenth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, and I think it is fair enough to say that moment in Geneva was one of the turning points in Western history.
I think we would not be here today, in this sanctuary, worshipping in the form that we do, had it not occurred. Or maybe if that’s too extreme a position, it is highly unlikely that our worship would have unfolded the way it has. It is also amazing to think that the Word of God was publicly read within the confines of government, and the city hall in Geneva at that time was one of the most important governments in the whole of Europe. In fact, the importance of cities was, I think, something that made the Western world very powerful, and it shouldn’t be forgotten.
It is an important moment for us, having been influenced by Calvin in one way or another, knowingly or unknowingly. I want to look at the great influence on his life, and one of the greatest influences on the writings, on the thought of John Calvin, was our text from Timothy today. It’s a difficult, but powerful reading. It greatly influenced Calvin, particularly the last lines within it: “All Scripture is inspired and worthy of instruction.”
Calvin believed that Scripture was greater than all the ecclesiastical bodies of the church, more authoritative than any of the creeds or canons. He believed that it superseded even the laws of men and women. He felt it was greater in terms of its instruction on our lives, than even the greatest political decisions that might be made. Therefore in all realms, Scripture should be heard, the Word of the Bible should be given credence and credibility. Why? Because for Calvin, all Scripture was inspired by God. He saw that Scripture needed to find itself in three different locales, and here he was really radical. First of all, he saw that it was important and needed to be heard in the preaching of the Word.
Prior to Calvin and the reformation, there was preaching, there were some magnificent preachers actually, historically within the church, some of the greats, in fact. But on the whole, the Word had little play in a worship service to the people, nor did it have a great deal of influence on the decisions that were made by the ecclesia and by the church. Scripture was a source, placed alongside many other sources, but it was not the primary source and the Bible did not have the main authority.
Homilies in the time of Calvin, had become nothing more than political commentaries, or maybe just the haranguing of members by the clergy, telling them to behave, to be better, and to abide by the rules of the church. That haranguing had become such a pain for people that they were turning away and the church was in decline, and becoming morally bankrupt.
Calvin wanted to bring the Scripture back into preaching. He wanted preaching to be extemporaneous. In other words, preaching from the heart, but he also wanted it to be exegetical, to arise from the text, and that the text was the most important thing.
He wanted preaching to be the central part of worship. He believed that if the Word of God was proclaimed and Scripture was lifted up, lives would be changed and people would find a closer relationship with God. He also maintained a second place where Scripture should be heard, and that is in the academy – the university. Calvin was a scholar, a lawyer, trained in the Sorbonne. He knew the law, he knew Greek, he knew Hebrew, and Latin. He was one of the most knowledgeable people of the fathers of the early church. Calvin wanted to connect the Scripture to the academy, to have Scripture studied alongside philosophy, logic, and the sciences. He felt that Scripture had lost its place and was no longer central to the academy, and he wanted the universities and the colleges to read Scripture and take it seriously, because he believed it would inspire young hearts and young minds.
Many of you don’t know this, but there was an announcement made this week at Victoria University and Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto, that there is a new professorship of preaching, and we’re very privileged to say it is the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church Professorship in Homiletics. We have done what Calvin would want us to do, I think. The academy benefits from preaching and from the study of the Word. It must not get lost. In all the different traditions and things that take place within the academy, the rhetoric, the insight, the dialogue with Scripture needs to be upheld, and the preaching of the Word needs to have a central place in the economy of God’s salvation.
The third place that he wanted it – and here it was really radical – was in the seats of power. Calvin wanted Scripture read in order that those who were part of the political leadership might know that they are under an authority themselves. For Calvin this was a reminder of the sovereignty of God, and that with all the powers of men and women, they might find in Scripture something that would inspire them to remain faithful to the ways of God.
I sometimes worry about, in our society, a creeping sense that religion itself should be marginalised, and with that, people of religion. I think we see that in one of the provinces in our country right now, and it worries me because one never knows where it ends. What a person believes matters. What convictions a person has is part of their lives, not something separate from it. Calvin, regardless of the religious tradition we’re talking about, would have been appalled. We need to be careful where this goes. But look what inspired him. Calvin wasn’t a well man, he suffered greatly. He wrote of his illness in Thea van Halsema’s wonderful biography of him, these words:
By companies, by squadrons and in single attacks, the horde of enemies has invaded me. It is twenty years since I have been without a headache. Arthritis and gout have crippled my joints, my leg and my arms. Kidney stones, too large to be passed, cause on agony of knifing pain. My chest felt as if a weight was lying on it and each breath was an effort.
In writing to his friend Beza on a trip to the city, he said this: “You write me long after midnight, while I now have to go to bed at seven, as is my habit. But that is what gouty old men come to do.” Isn't that lovely – gouty old men. He suffered enormously, and yet in the midst of it, God bless him, still had the passion to write all the things that he wrote in the institutes and all of his magnificent commentaries on the scripture, and a beautiful book of prayers.
Now I turn to the Bible and our passage today. What drove Calvin was this conviction that Paul had for young Timothy, that all scripture is inspired. Paul wrote this to young Timothy at the very earliest part of the church’s life, because this young man was struggling. He looked at the gentile world around him and saw corruption.
I don’t know how you felt hearing that list of all the deceits that were there in the early church, but it’s a pretty rotten list of things that were taking place. It was not a good time. People were turning away from the faith, not only Christian, but also within the Jewish community. Paul is writing to Timothy and urging him to let people know that there is a source and a strength for them that is greater than all the problems and challenges they face. Those who are, to use his phrase, “lovers of themselves”, more interested in themselves than in God or even one another. A world that had become self-centred and deceitful and angry.
Paul says that the Word of God, as we find it in scripture, is good for three things. And here perhaps, from the grave, John Calvin could speak to us. “All scripture is there for instruction.” In other words, for guidance.
I don’t know if any of you wake up in the morning and go onto Wikipedia and plug in God and see what comes up, but I encourage you to do it, because I did this week. I thought, “Hey, if I'm going to preaching about God, I should find out what Wikipedia thinks about Him first.” What am I confronted with? This list of words: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, immutable, unchanging, immortal – the list goes on and on forever. I'm thinking to myself, “Well, if I was going to do some research on God and hit those words first, I think I’d move on to something else.”
Honestly, these are the qualities of God, fair enough, they are philosophical categories that we can debate and discuss, but where do we really get our instruction from? Do we go to Wikipedia and find a particular word in order that we might understand God? No, of course we don’t. We turn to scripture. We turn to the unfolding history of God’s people, and we find in scripture something rich and a great tradition.
Even Paul in his note to Timothy uses the Old Testament to make a point. He said that Jannes and Jambres from Exodus 7:11, who were troublesome to Moses, like the people giving Timothy trouble. Now what’s he doing there? He’s borrowing from history, he’s taking a moment where God’s people were being challenged and finding themselves in an awkward position. He is instructing Timothy, using scripture to interpret scripture, which is one of the great principles of biblical interpretation.
Paul Wilson tells his students that: “Scripture is there to tell us the story, to be the revelation of God’s unfolding work.” When we want to know about God, we turn to the scriptures, we do not turn to philosophy or theosophy or ideas, as great as they may be. We turn to scripture first. Okay, maybe we conclude, after we have read scripture, that God is omniscient, , he’s all-knowing, but that’s not where we start. We start with scripture and we let it unfold and give us direction.
There were people in the time of Timothy who were lording over him. He was a young man, and he was being intimidated by people telling him what he should say about God and what he should know. There were people, men and women both, who were being seduced by these soothsayers going around with their own interpretations of things, but not part of scripture itself.
But what did Paul mean by scripture? Did he only mean the canon of the Old Testament, just the prophets and the law, maybe the psalms, or was it more? I’ve always believed it’s more. I believe that the messages of the Gospels, though not completed in written form in the time of Paul, were nevertheless part of the tradition that was circulating in the Christian church and that those were becoming Scripture. I think some of the letters that Paul wrote, particularly the Book of Romans and Corinthians, were part of scripture for the early church. Even Peter says that the words of Paul were actually a scripture.
So we’re very close to what we know as the canon of scripture being used, although there were things written after Paul that were added later. Nevertheless, the principle is that the Holy Spirit was at work using scripture to instruct and guide. But it was more than that, it was about our ethics, how we treat one another, how we live. Those that were lovers of themselves, caught up in their own selves, and making their own ideas and ethics up as they went, to justify their own way of living, needed scripture to guide them.
That scripture is inspired to teach and nurture us. There are commandments, laws, things that have been put in place that are there to protect us and guide us. There are encouragements for us to look after the other, to take care of the poor, and the dispossessed, to support widows and orphans, to help those that are abused. These are all part of the ethics of scripture and they stand in contradistinction to those who just make up their own as they go along.
It’s also there – and let’s not lose sight of this – to lift us up and encourage us. Let’s be honest, quite a lot of people will turn to scripture when something goes wrong, or will turn to God when they’ve got a crisis in their life, but before that, they don’t. Before that they're just living their lives as if God and scripture has no part of it.
I love a story told by Doctor Halldorson, about the frog. The frog fell into a hole in the road, and could not jump out of it. All the frog’s friends were saying, “If you really tried hard enough, you could get out. You really should try and get out of this hole.”
The frog said, “No, I can't get out of this hole, I’ve just got to lay in this hole, the hole is my lot in life.”
About a week later, people saw the frog hopping down the road, and his friends went up to him and said, “Hold on a minute, I thought you couldn’t get out of the hole?”
He said, “Oh well, okay, yes, well, there was a truck coming and I just had to.”
In other words, we get complacent, and then a problem comes along and that’s when we change our ways. How much better it is though, to continually feed ourselves with the knowledge of God. Maybe now as summertime comes along, this is a wonderful time to go onto the Canadian Bible Society website and look at their daily readings. Or perhaps The Upper Room. Find a way to immerse yourself in the Word every day, that it becomes a part of you. Not just in moments of crisis, but to prepare you for life in general and lift you up. Paul saw that the scriptures would lift up young Timothy, help him, encourage him, guide him and instruct him.
When Calvin was preaching – and he often did, he also pastored, and visited people often – in Geneva, he realised that even with all the scholarship, and all the learning, he still needed to meditate on the Word every day and let it become part of him.
Both my mentor, Harry Gardner at Acadia, and my friend and colleague, Paul Wilson, have had that as an integral part of their lives, and I can attest to the fact that a daily reading of scripture in a quiet time, is inspirational, it’s there for instruction, to be a guide in our ethics and to lift us up.
Maybe on the five hundred and tenth anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, that is breaking news from Tim’s. Amen.