Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sermon for February 28th


A couple of weeks ago in my sermon for the Sunday before Lent, I suggested that this season of Lent can be for us a significant moment, a moment that makes a difference for the future course of our lives. It can be a time for us to learn some new habits and take on some godly disciplines that will help to shape us as Christian disciples long past the end of Lent. I suggested six areas of our lives that we need to think about: prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission. Last week we talked about prayer, and this week I want to continue by thinking about the Christian discipline of study.

Today there is a real crisis of knowledge in the church. I’m quite sure that the majority of members of the Anglican church have never read the Bible all the way through and have only a very hazy idea of its contents; they’d be hard pressed to tell you whether David or Peter or Elijah are Old Testament or New Testament characters, and many can’t even explain the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Many Anglicans go off to diocesan synods and General Synod to discuss issues like homosexuality without having the slightest idea how to read the Bible in such a way as to wrestle with ethical issues. And when atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens come along and write books claiming to disprove the existence of God, many Christians respond in fear; they’re afraid that if they open these books and try to engage with their arguments, their faith will be destroyed.

I’m not going to begin to speculate as to the reasons for this crisis of knowledge, although I think it may be connected to an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, and it may also have a lot to do with sheer mental laziness. But I want to argue this morning that if we duck the discipline of study, we miss out on one of the primary ways in which God transforms us into the image of Christ. Listen to these words of St. Paul in Romans chapter twelve:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:1-2).

Did you catch St. Paul’s emphasis on the mind there? He tells us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of our minds’. How does that happen? Listen to what he says in Philippians chapter four:

‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things ‘ (Philippians 4:8).

There’s a note of intentionality in what St. Paul is saying here. I’m told that Buddhism teaches that the mind is like a monkey, constantly jumping around from tree to tree, but St. Paul is encouraging us to learn to bring it under control, to focus it, to concentrate it on the good and true and just and pure and excellent things that God wants us to be thinking about. In this area, as in so many other areas of life, the rule is: ‘Garbage in, garbage out’. If you let the mind dwell on garbage, don’t be surprised if the results are not good! But if you focus the mind on the truth and beauty of God, the result will be a lot better.

And this discipline of study is not just an intellectual head-game. Jesus says in John 8:32: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’. Lies bind us and destroy our lives, but when we see the world as God sees it – and when we see ourselves as God sees us – we are set free to live as God intended. Jesus does not say that good feelings will set us free. He does not say that inspiring worship experiences will set us free. He says that the knowledge of the truth will set us free. All the more reason, then, for us to apply our minds to the truth by the Christian discipline of study.

Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, points out that there are four steps in the process of study.

The first step is repetition – that is, regularly channeling the mind in a given direction. Repetition is how we learn our addresses and phone numbers; repetition is how we learned the multiplication tables when we were children; repetition is how guitarists learn the chords of songs. Children who hear over and over again that they are bad and useless have those negative judgments burned into deep ruts in their brains, and it can take years of therapy to heal them. For good or for ill, there is huge power in repetition.

And so in study, we don’t just read something once. We read it again, and we read it again, and we ponder it and let it sink into our minds and our hearts. That’s the first step.

The second step is concentration. Today, real concentration in study is rare. When I watch students reading and working on their laptops in coffee shops, I see how many things they’ve got going at once. Their cell phones are on the table beside them, and they might get two or three texts in the course of an hour of study, which of course they answer immediately. As well as whatever it is they’re working on, their web browsers are open to Facebook and they are continually checking for status updates, and their iPod earphones are in their ears as well! All this stimulus makes real concentration very difficult. I know, because I experience it myself. I can be sitting at my desk working on a sermon, and things can be going really well. But then Erin tells me there’s a phone call for me, and for a few minutes I have to think about something else. When I come back to the sermon preparation, it takes me a few minutes to get back into the groove again – and then the phone rings again – and so on, and so on!

Concentration is essential to real transformational study. Concentration means shutting out distractions as much as possible – turning off Facebook, turning off the cell phone and the TV, and applying the mind to the one thing you are trying to focus on.

The third step is understanding. We can’t rush this. With some things that we study, the first time we read them or think about them, we can’t make anything of them. At this point many people give up and think that study isn’t for them. But this is not the way of Christian discipleship. Disciples persevere: we come back to the text, we read it again, we go for a walk and keep thinking about it, we pray for light and understanding. Perhaps we talk about it with other Christians and ask them what they make of it. And slowly, gradually, the light comes on. Or maybe not slowly or gradually: sometimes we have ‘Aha!’ moments when comprehension dawns suddenly and we wonder how we never saw it. At other times it’s a more gradual growth in our understanding of what we’re studying.

So we have three steps: Repetition, Concentration, and Understanding. The fourth step is Reflection. It’s not enough to understand what we’ve studied; now we go on to ponder the significance of it. How does this truth make a difference to the world? How do I apply it to my life? How is God calling me to put it into practice?

It should be obvious by now that the Christian discipline of study requires humility. If we think we already know everything, we won’t see the point of study. In the secular world, I’m amazed at the number of people who make bold pronouncements about political ideas without ever taking the time to actually read about the issues. And in the Church, people will often cite strong opinions on controversial subjects, but a moment’s conversation will show you that they’ve never made an effort to understand the point of view of the people they disagree with. True Christian study calls for a humble approach to the truth: “God, I have much to learn, and the chances are that there are a lot of things I’m wrong about, so would you please guide me into the truth by your Holy Spirit?”

What should we study? The first object of our study is, of course, the Bible. Psalm 119 says, ‘How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word… I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you’ (Psalm 119:9, 11), and in 2 Timothy St. Paul says:

‘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’ (2 Timothy 3:16)

There’s an important difference between the study of the Bible and the devotional reading of the Bible. In study, what we’re looking for is understanding and interpretation: what does this text mean? And so, for instance, if we read in the Old Testament that God forbids his ancient people to charge interest on loans to their fellow-Israelites, we want to understand exactly what that meant: what was the main purpose of loans in those days, and how was it similar or different from our economic system today? Once we’ve answered that question, we can go on to devotional reading, in which we are looking for application: how does this text apply to me? As a Christian, am I supposed to charge interest on loans or not?

Study, you see is objective: we’re looking for understanding of the truth, whether it applies to me personally or not. Devotional reading is subjective: we’re looking to apply what we read to our lives. Most people want to rush straight to devotional reading, but if you do that without really understanding the text in its original setting, sometimes you can come up with some pretty weird applications!

What are some of the ways we can study the Bible? The possibilities are endless, but let me make a couple of suggestions.

Firstly, I think one of our great needs today is simply the reading of large chunks of scripture, so we get the big flow of the story. Today, for instance, we come to church and hear a few verses from Genesis 15, but do you know how that passage fits into the big story of Genesis? The same applies to our epistle and our gospel reading. Is this the way you read Dickens, or John Grisham, or Harry Potter – a paragraph in isolation, with no reference to context? Of course not!

So take a major book of the Bible – say, Genesis, or Matthew’s Gospel, or Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Read it all the way through, maybe in one sitting for one of the shorter ones, maybe in four or five sittings for the longer ones. Notice the structure and flow of the book. Note down any thoughts and impressions that you get. Jot down the things that jump out at you, or any nagging questions and issues in the text, or any passages you want to return to, to think about in more detail.

Another approach is to take a smaller book – say, one of Paul’s shorter letters, and read it all the way through once a day for a month. This is a superb way of really imprinting the message of that book on your mind! Again, keep notes of things that come to you day by day as you read – questions, issues and so on.

Of course, after reading a book quickly all the way through, you can then go on to read it slowly, taking a daily passage in order, and asking these three questions: what does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean to me?

What about other books? The Bible is our primary study text as disciples of Jesus, and our study of the Bible will definitely transform our thinking and our living. But it’s not the only text. We aren’t the first people in the world to follow Jesus; many wise Christians have gone before us, and their writings can help us as we struggle to understand the issues and to live as faithful followers of Jesus.

Are we struggling with the issue of pain – if there is a good God, why do bad things happen? C.S. Lewis wrote a fine book about the philosophical problem of evil called The Problem of Pain, and Philip Yancey has written a very practical book about how to live with suffering called Where is God When It Hurts? Do we struggle with how to pray in a meaningful way? We can find help in Bill Hybels’ book Too Busy Not to Pray, or Bishop John Pritchard’s book How to Pray. Do we wonder about the arguments raised by atheists like Richard Dawkins? The intellectual case for Christianity has been made by many fine writers, including Tim Keller in The Reason for God and C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Are we interested in learning how Christians before us have grown in their faith? We can read St. Augustine’s Confessions, or The Rule of St. Benedict, or Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.

Don’t be intimidated by all the books you haven’t read! Simply ask yourself, ‘What interests me? What are my main questions as a Christian?’ And then find out what has been written on those questions by Christian writers, and get busy reading. I’ve left a basic reading list at the back of the church, if you’re wondering where to get started; if you don’t see a book on that list that deals with the question you’re interested in, by all means ask, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. And remember the old saw: How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite!

Let me close with a few basic steps we can all take:

First, read the Bible. But unless you’re a Shakespeare scholar, don’t try to read it in the old King James Version; get a decent modern translation, like the New Revised Standard Version or the Today’s New International Version. Having got it, sit down and start to read it, and don’t give up if you start finding it difficult. Good things come to those who persevere!

Second, study a book. As I said, ask yourself what interests you, or what your major questions are about Christianity, and then find a book that addresses those issues and start to read it. Remember the four steps: repetition, concentration, understanding, application. Use those four steps to turn your reading into study.

Third, join a study group or course. Lots of people who have difficulty studying by themselves find that a group can make all the difference. We have three small group Bible studies in this congregation, and those who come to them find them very helpful in deepening their understanding of the scriptures. Or you can join a course like ‘Christian Basics’ or ‘Growing and Living as a Christian’, or one of the other courses we run here from time to time.

Fourth, don’t be discouraged by all the stuff you haven’t studied, and don’t be surprised if you find study difficult at first. Persevere, and eventually your study will start to get easier and you’ll start to notice the fruit of your study in your daily life and thought.

And this leads to the last step. Remember that we’re not just interested in information but in transformation. Let’s end where we began, with these words of St. Paul:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:1-2).

‘Be transformed by the renewing of your minds’. That is the goal of our studies. God has given us the tools. Now it’s up to us to use them.

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