Thanks be to God

In many different liturgical traditions, there is a formula we follow after the reading of Scripture. We do it in Shiloh — even at the Baptist Church I go to. The reader of the sacred text says, “This is the word of the Lord,” and the whole congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

In the mornings some of us do the same thing. A small group gets up early and goes to Reid Chapel. Every weekday morning we do the appointed Morning Prayer liturgy in the new monastic prayer book called “Common Prayer.” It’s not in the book, but when we read the Old Testament and New Testament readings for the day, we conclude with that formula.

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Yesterday, however, it was almost hard to say.  The words actually caught in my throat when we started it.  I was leading the liturgy at the time and we had just read two
passages.  One was from Joel and the other from Revelation.  They were both about plagues of locusts poured upon the earth.

How can we be thankful for that?

I think we are not always honest with Scripture.  We are not always transparent about the way it can mess with us.  How can we say “Thanks be to God” after reading something like this?

Is not the food cut off
before our eyes,
joy and gladness
from the house of our God?
The seed shrivels under the clods;
the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are torn down
because the grain has dried up.
Joel 1:16-17, NRSV

Does it make us happy?  Is it something we are really thankful for?

What about this?

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit.  He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.
Revelation 9:1-2

How does the Christian respond liturgically to words like these?

This is the word of the Lord.

OK, fine, but I’m not sure I like it.

Numerous scholars, theologians, and other figures in the North American Church like to claim that they (presumably unlike their “foes”) take the “whole” Bible.  They read every passage and interpret it just like it says.  They understand the word of the Lord and don’t pick out just what they like.

Can anyone really do that?

Can anyone honestly say that they do that?

There are tons of difficult passages in the Bible, and sometimes we are not willing to let them be difficult.  We explain it away.  We tweak it just a bit to fit into our preconceived theological boxes.  We don’t let the text mess us up.

For example, take the passage of the Rich Ruler in the Gospel of Luke. This is my passage for the Preaching course I’m taking this semester, so I have by now read a great deal of material attempting to interpret the passage.  So many people try and modify it so it does not mess with their heads. They try and modify it so they can actually be thankful for it.  Some commentaries I read went to great lengths to do so.  The central teaching is this, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of
God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 18:25)

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God … ?

Do we mean that?  Can we — many of us very wealthy Americans — all of us comparatively wealthy human beings — say that?  Thanks be to God for what?  Thanks be to God that we’re wrong?  Thanks be to God for a text we try to explain away through mistranslation or re-appropriated metaphors? Do we thank God when we make up stories about literal camels going through gates called “needles” or explaining that camel is a typo for the Greek word for rope?  Do we honor the text when we don’t allow it to make us uncomfortable? Is that thanking God?

When we just treat the Bible as a homogenous whole for which we can say, “Thanks be to God,” I think we dishonor our Scriptures.  For some passages it is harder to be thankful than others.  When we acknowledge that, I think we truly encounter the Bible for what it is.  In so doing, we allow God to work in the text and communicate with us.

So, next time someone reads a passage of Scripture, by all means, respond, “Thanks be to God,” but also ask, “Thanks be to God … for what?

Wes Spears

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One thought on “Thanks be to God

  1. Pingback: Thanks be to God (via The Scribe) « The Reluctant Baptist

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