The Lutheran Bible Translators Harvest of Souls

As the crop harvest continues throughout southern Minnesota this time of year I am continuing a series of sermons on mission agencies affiliated with my church body, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. In this post I look at Lutheran Bible Translators, (LBT), based in Concordia Missouri.

LBT is one of ten major Bible translation agencies in the world. With a team of 29 translators or translator teams, it serves to help put God’s word in the hands of all people in a language that speaks to their hearts.

Bible translation is in the DNA of Lutherans. One of Martin Luther’s signature accomplishments was translating the Bible from Latin into German. He translated the entire New Testament into German in just 10 months while he was in hiding at Wartburg Castle. Then when he came out of hiding he put together a team to help him translate the Old Testament into German.

This opened the door to the Bible being translated into many, many other languages, including English. It also opened the door to many more common people reading the Bible for themselves so that church leaders could no longer insist that lay people just go along with whatever they taught.

Back when LBT was started in the 1960’s, one of the first projects they worked on was to translate the Bible into the Gola language, a language that is spoken by about 200,000 people in Liberia. But the project was plagued by many challenges. Some of the translators fell ill. A bloody civil war ravaged the country of Liberia. For a while it looked like the project would never be completed.

Then about 10 years ago peace returned to the country and the project was restarted and now the entire New Testament has been completed in the Gola language. The people are thrilled.

A similar thing happened in the country of Cameroon. 40 years ago work was started on translating the Bible into the Subula language. But the project was abandoned very early in the process with only a few written materials produced.

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But when Elliot and Serena Derricks arrived in Cameroon to restart the project they found some of those materials that had been produced 40 years ago we still intact. A man had kept the materials just waiting until the translation project would be restarted.

The Derricks also discovered some old songbooks that had been produced in the Subula language. These songbooks were still in use and people would gather around and share the songbooks as they sang in their own language, sometimes as many as 15 people using one songbook. Now that the Bible translation project has been restarted interest is very high in the project.

One of the things that Bible translators have to do is try to determine how the people that they are working with think. As Dr. Mike Rodewald, the president of LBT points out, missionaries have to learn the thought processes of the people they are working with before they begin translation work.

A couple of stories illustrate this.

A woman and her young child who were new to the Christians faith were traveling on foot to a nearby town. As they walked, the child was almost hit by a bus that came whooshing by on the road. They were okay but it scared them very badly. A few days later the child came down with a fever and the mother was very worried.

In the mind of the mother, the fever came because the child’s spirit had left her body at the place where she was almost struck by the bus. She contacted one of the leaders of her church and asked if he would take some of the child’s clothing and an offering of a boiled chicken egg to the scene of the incident and pray that the child’s spirit would return home. In her mind that was what would cure the child of her fever.

The woman had become a Christian but she still clung to some of her old pagan beliefs. The pastor of her church realized he had a lot more teaching to do.

This idea of returning to the place of a tragedy seems to be more common these days. Very often now when a tragedy happens people will gather in the place where it happened and build various kinds of memorials. So maybe the thinking of many Americans is not that different from the thinking of people in foreign lands.

In another instance, a house in a village got struck by lightning during a storm. Since the roof of the house was made of thatch the roof started on fire and the house was severely damaged. In the aftermath of the fire it became clear that many of the people in the village believed the reason that lightning struck the house was because the people had somehow angered the spirits. In their minds, what the family needed to do was to make some kind of sacrifice to appease the spirits.

This kind of thinking is prevalent in many places throughout the world. If something bad happens it means the spirits are angry and must somehow be appeased. Then things can return to normal.

These two stories made me think about my own calling as a pastor. Christianity is unique in having pastors. In pagan religions the main job of the religious leaders is to perform the rituals and sacrifices that will appease the spirits so that life can get back to normal. And since these religious leaders are helping people when they are vulnerable it often leads to manipulation.

As a Christian pastor I don’t have to do that. God has already been 100 percent reconciled to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the words of St. Paul from Philippians 3 that are quoted above point out, through Jesus we have the peace of God that passes all understanding. My job as a Christian pastor is simply to bring that Good News to people in any and every situation.

Christians still have tragedies that happen to us just like everyone else. We get fevers. Our houses are struck by lightning. These are not signs that God or some spirit is angry with us. Those are times to strengthen our faith in God’s love and forgiveness in Christ.

This is something that can be understood in every language. Yes, we may have many cultural differences, we may think differently about many things, but this idea of appeasing or reconciling God or the spirits is found just about everywhere. And we have the answer. In Christ, we are reconciled to God and have peace with him.

We share with people that God does not threaten us with fevers or lightning strikes when we sin. We are threatened with eternal damnation in hell because of our many sins. But then we share with them that, for the sake of Christ, all of the punishment and condemnation that we deserve because of our sins has been placed on Jesus when he died for us on the cross. We have true peace with God that passes all understanding.

LBT strives to put this good news in the heart language of people around the world. When they succeed in completing a new translation of the Bible they can tell people, “You don’t have to take our word for it, you can now read all about the peace that passes understanding right here in this Bible.

Translating the Bible into new languages is part of the DNA of Lutherans going all the way back to Martin Luther. Lutherans have always seen the need for making the Bible available in the heart language of people across the world so that they can read for themselves the good news about the peace we have with God through Jesus.

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