Heb. 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
It was Christmas vacation, 1973. I had just finished my first quarter at seminary. I had been invited to attend a student missionary conference in Illinois, but decided to stay home to work at Sears instead. I didn’t exactly choose life that time! But each night when I came home from work I stayed up late reading one of the Narnia Chronicles, CS Lewis’ series of children’s books. I loved the adventures the children had, and I loved the faith connections Lewis made to life. Something started shifting in me.
It was nothing dramatic, but when I returned to seminary I knew I had to get out of school. Two contradictory truths came crashing down on me: on the one hand, I loved theology and seminary; on the other, I was dying – or at least my spirit was dying – as I studied theology & attended seminary. I didn’t really know what was killing me. I just knew I needed something new. I didn’t know I was seeking the living word of God. I just thought I needed to get out of school and have an adventure.
I ended up going to Costa Rica & Colombia as a short term missionary that September. I’d never left family & friends before; nor had I ever been out of the country. Yet there I was getting on a 747 taking me away for 16 months. I cried as I got on the plane. I was shaking. I had always played it safe. I did just about everything the way I was supposed to do it when I was supposed to do it. I was a great rule keeper. I had no idea how dead I was. But when I hit the ground first in Costa Rica then in Colombia, I knew my life would never be the same. It turned out to be the most important 16 months of my life.
The letter to the Hebrews says, “The Word of God is Living and Active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides souls from spirit, joints from marrow: it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before the word no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” What does it mean by “Living Word?” Is there such a thing as a “dead word?” Theologically, Jesus is the Living Word. But practically, the path of life for ‘today’ involves listening to Jesus’ Spirit as a fresh, living word.
What about ‘dead words? Dead words are yesterday’s will of God. They come as words written down in the past and followed as if one could understand what they mean today without listening to God’s voice. Sometimes dead words are those we learned as children. They were fine for then; but they’re dead now. Other times they are simply habits we’ve never questioned that put our lives on auto pilot and slowly kill us. We need a living word. We prefer dead words because living words aren’t very tame; most of us prefer to live our lives on the tame side.
This morning’s Scriptures from Hebrews and the Gospel speak to this choice between a living word that rides like a wild horse and a dead word that acts like a domesticated animal that has lost its spirit. Hebrews says that our life is grounded in God’s Living Word. But today, in the name of religion people try to assure permanent places for dead words. It is essential that people of faith follow the Living Word. Hebrews 4 references events in the life of Israel when they chose dead words over living ones: “O that today you would listen to his voice! Don’t harden your hearts as at Meribah.” What happened at Meribah? Twice in that location the people rebelled because they wanted what they knew in Egypt, even though they were slaves, rather than risk a new life of liberation. What they were experiencing in the desert didn’t feel like liberation. They heard the report of 12 spies that had been sent to scope out the land of Canaan. Ten returned saying that, despite how good the land was, the people were too big and scary. The Israelites shrunk in fear and said, “We were better off in Egypt. Why did you take us to die in the desert?” When the two remaining spies called them to focus on God’s will for today in the form of an abundant land and God’s faithfulness, the congregation tried to stone them. So they wandered for another forty years. That whole generation died in the desert because they preferred the dead words of fearful spies to the Living Word of faithful spies.
When I read in the Gospel about the man who came to Jesus seeking a more abundant life being asked to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor, it seems unfair that I was eased into the living word with an adventure in Latin America. He, too, was a great rule keeper like me. When Jesus answered his question about how to inherit life by quoting the 10 commandments, the man responded, ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus saw what was going on. The problem wasn’t the 10 commandments. It was that the 10 commandments were no longer a Living Word for this man. They’d become dead words. That’s why Jesus said “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor then come follow me.”
But that’s what feels unfair. I never would have taken that as a first step, or probably even a 50th step. Yet, this man, like me, was facing the fact that obeying the rules was killing him. There had to be something more to life than that. But sell everything I have and give the money to the poor? How could that lead to a more abundant life? No wonder he went away grieving. Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding.
Turns out he wasn’t. Some truths can’t be avoided. Living words shake things up, disturb the peace, without giving any guarantees. On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. When Yeager landed his plane after breaking through the sound barrier, the press rushed him and asked him what had impressed him the most about the experience. Yeager said, ‘I discovered that the cockpit shakes the hardest just before break-through. That doesn’t sound very attractive until we face the other part of this truth: dead words leave us sad, & ultimately lead to death.
A wise modern rabbi named Ed Freidman used to tell Chuck Yeager’s story to teach an important lesson to his students. ‘That’s the moment in life & in leadership in which you have the most fear. When the cockpit of life is shaking most is the moment you have to deal with your anxiety more than any other time in your life. That’s when you’re tempted the most to turn back, when you are just about to break through into a healthier & freer way of life.’ So make your choice: life that shakes things up or sadness that leaves things unchanged. This man chose sadness. What will you choose?
Another rabbi, Jesus, knew that religion tends to lead us in the opposite direction: we get lost in dead words. That’s why he dedicated his entire life to inviting people to follow the living word. In John’s Gospel Jesus, the living word incarnate, made this painfully clear to his very religious opponents: ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life… If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Moses gave you circumcision and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath in order that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?’ (John 5:39-40, 46; 7:19, 22-23) Moses’ words had become dead words to them. Jesus followed Moses’ words as living words. That shook them up.
The living word is also compassionate, though dead words sound safer. The Hebrews passage begins with a painful image of the word of God as ‘living & active, sharper than any two-edged sword.’ It goes on to call us to hold onto that word since we have a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses because he has been tested as we are. The irony is that it’s more dangerous to shrink back in fear or build up our defenses against the two-edged sword that threatens our safety than it is to expose ourselves to it. How many times have we tried to reform our lives, only to realize we’ve simply strengthened our resistance to change? How many times have we judged others’ behavior based on dead words that haven’t served us very well? In our fear of losing the only anchor we have we heap guilt on another, even as it pulls us under. The Living Word offers something frighteningly new. This text confronts us with the question in our Gospel hymn: Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside & never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight & touch & sound in you & you in me?