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Finding a Word

A Haggadah is a Jewish book that gives the instructions and prayers to be used during the Passover Seder meal. It tells the story that we know from Exodus about God rescuing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It’s got the plagues and the Passover, the whole thing. We would

also recognize some of the words from Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Psalms.

One of the most historically significant Haggadot is the “Sarajevo Haggadah.” It’s a beautiful illuminated text meaning it is full of pictures that bring the story of God and the Israelites to life. The story of the Sarajevo Haggadah is incredible. It was created in Barcelona around 1350 as a wedding present for a Jewish couple. Its art is special- it begins at creation and shows the earth as round, a scientific fact not widely known or believed at that time. In 1492, the Alhambra Decree was issued, and all practicing Jews were given 4 months to leave Spain. They were expelled from their homes and businesses in an act we now call the Spanish Inquisition. These Jewish exiles took the Haggadah with them. It next appeared in Italy in the 16th century- a fact we know from notes written in the margins. It was discovered there and was nearly burned by the Catholic Church in 1609. It’s history for nearly 300 years is a mystery. But in 1894, the ancient Haggadah reappeared in Sarajevo where it was sold to the National Museum (thus it’s name, “the Sarajevo Haggadah”).

During World War II, the Museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut knew the value of the ancient book. While he was Muslim, he knew that the book mattered deeply and ought to be saved. With the help of the Catholic director of the museum, Korkut hid the book from the Nazis, ultimately smuggling it out of Sarajevo and passing it to a Muslim cleric to hide in a mosque in the mountains. At the same time, he and his wife also brought a young Jewish girl into their home and protected her. The Haggadah was later returned to the museum. In 1992, during the Bosnian War, thieves broke into the museum. Believing the Haggadah to be worthless, it was cast off and left on the floor.

During the Siege of Sarajevo, the museum was hit hard. Rooms were flooded and damaged. A Muslim archaeology professor recruited help and they broke into the safe that held the Haggadah with a hammer and pickax. The Haggadah was hidden in a secret underground bank vault, brought out only at a Seder meal in 1995. During that same time, the young girl who was saved by the Museum librarian was now an adult living in Israel, and she took in the daughter of Korkut, the librarian. Another child protected from the dangers of war alongside the book. By 2001, it became clear that the vault was not a good long-term facility for housing the ancient book. The Jews of Sarajevo initiated efforts for its preservation and restoration. The United Nations, in the country following the end of the war, stepped in to help. Funding from governments around the world, institutions, and even individual donors made the project possible. Their gifts funded the creation of a climate-controlled room in Sarajevo’s National Museum that held a place of honor for the Haggadah, but also included important documents from Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic communities.

I love the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah for many reasons, but I think the most important is this: our holy words matter and are worth preserving. This story is sometimes called “miraculous,” that along with the many hands that preserved it, God was there ensuring that these words, words that are sacred to both Jews and Christians, this sacred art, would not be destroyed.

I love the Sarajevo Haggadah, and I want us to approach all of the Bible with that kind of awe and devotion. I don’t mean that we must treat every physical Bible book as if it deserves to be in a climate-controlled vaulted room. I don’t want us to dip into the dangers of bibliolotry- making an idol of the Bible. But I do think that the word of God calls us into this depth of meaning. I do think that in these words we encounter love, grace, promise, hope, wisdom, God.

As Presbyterians, here is what we believe about the Bible. The Book of Order says, “The church confesses the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, witnessing to God’s self-revelation. Where that Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the Living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.[1] These two sentences demonstrate the ways that the three parts of the Trinity are present in the experience of scripture. We discover God in God’s own words of the Bible; when the Bible is read, Jesus is present; and the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with us here and now helps us to understand and experience God in these words. It’s a big, beautiful, and perhaps somewhat confusing idea. So, I want to spend the rest of our time together this morning explaining what exactly that means and showing how we find that truth in our text this morning from Proverbs.

The Bible isn’t meant to sit on a shelf or be sat on a piece of furniture like décor or sit under museum glass (except, of course, very special Bibles!). The Bible is meant to be read. That section from our Book of Order says that in scripture, God reveals God’s self to us. And so, it logically follows that if we do not actually engage in reading and studying the Bible, we are missing the revelation of God to us. 2 Timothy reminds us that “all scripture is inspired by God” and Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that “the word of God is living and active.” If we believe those things, then we must engage in a regular practice of reading the Bible! It should be central in our worship and preaching, but it should absolutely extend into our regular lives as well.

To me, one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a beat-up Bible. I love to see a Bible that is held together with duct tape, marked up with notes in the margins, highlighted, underlined, doodled in, binding broken, cover stained. I love the sight of a worn out Bible because that is a Bible that has been used, cherished, taken seriously. You may remember back in August we gifted all of the children of this congregation with their own Bible. You gifted them with a Bible. Leather covers, their names embossed on the front. You gave them the gift of God’s revelation, Jesus’ presence, that through the inward witness of the Holy Spirit they would experience God in those pages. It is my prayer that those same Bibles will one day be used and loved to the point of falling apart.

I hope you’ve noticed the words that we have been singing throughout this Lenten season just before we read scripture. I love this song! “Listen to the words that God has spoken, listen to the one who is close at hand. Listen to the words that began creation, listen even if you don’t understand.” They say exactly this- we must learn to listen, we must be consistent, diligent, and attentive to the reading of God’s word.

And why? We come to the text to meet God as revealed to us in Christ Jesus. In our reading this morning from Proverbs we find this promise, “My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. Of course, the writer of Proverbs had not encountered Jesus, but we know that Jesus is the Living Word, and that as the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” So, if we believe that Jesus, the Living Word is the source of life, then pursuing the wisdom described in Proverbs is a means of connecting with the Living Word.

I think this idea from Proverbs is so important. Sometimes we act as though some people are wise and others aren’t. Or that wisdom is for some and not others. But no, Proverbs tells us- wisdom is the result of the pursuit. Treasuring God’s commands, truly listening with your ears and also your heart, asking God for insight and understanding, searching for wisdom- that is the path of the wise. Wisdom isn’t some magical gift from God. It is the result of reading and listening. It begins with approaching the Bible with trust and expectation, asking God as we have been singing to “meet us here.”

The second half of our reading this morning tells us what the gift of wisdom will mean in the life of the one who has it. “Wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; prudence will watch over you; and understanding will guard you.” God’s gift to us is the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, using this wisdom to shield, protect, and to help us understand our lives and our world. Earlier I quoted a bit from 2 Timothy 3, but the entirety of verses 16 and 17 read, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Scripture, a tool through which we find wisdom, interpreted in community, led by the Holy Spirit in each of us- this is the way of life.

I notice that the beginning of this passage from Proverbs begins with the words “my child.” Of course, all of us are the children of God, but this week in particular it has been on my heart how important it is for us to guide our children in this way. It reminded me of this quote from Madeleine L’Engle in her 1972 book A Circle of Quiet: “No wonder our youth is confused and in pain; they long for God, for the transcendent, and are offered, far too often, either piosity or sociology, neither of which meets their needs, and they are introduced to churches which have become buildings that are a safe place to go to escape the awful demands of God… We can surely no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. We’ve come to the point where it’s irresponsible to try to protect them from the irrational world they will have to live in when they grow up. The children themselves haven’t yet isolated themselves by selfishness and indifference; they do not fall easily into the error of despair; they are considerably braver than most grownups. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it.”[2]

I believe, as did Madeleine L’Engle, that one of the weapons we have against the evil, the lack of love, the terrifying absence of grace that we find in our world is God’s word, the Bible. Hebrews 4:12 says this, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” So friends, let us commit ourselves to listening to scripture, truly listening as Proverbs says with both our ears and our hearts. Let us commit to studying scripture with the fullness of minds and our hearts. Let us seek wisdom with all of our energy, knowing that the eternal and triune God is with us in that pursuit. May we share these sacred gifts with one another and especially with our children. And in so doing, may we all find the Living Word of God that is Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Book of Order, W-2.2001 [2] L’Engle, M. A Circle of Quiet (1972), New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 98-99.

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