Sunday, March 20, 2016

Reading and Meditating on the Word of God (2016 Lent sermon series #6)

For the past five weeks we’ve been on a Lenten journey together. We’ve been thinking about how we can experience for ourselves what Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. As we think about how to open the door to Jesus, we’ve been guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.: ‘I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God’.

So we’ve been thinking about these six practices we can build into our lives as a way of deepening our relationship with Christ. This week, the last Sunday in Lent, we’re going to turn our attention to the sixth habit: ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’. So this is not going to be a traditional Palm Sunday sermon, thinking about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. Instead we’re going to be thinking about the entry of the Word of God into our hearts and lives as we read and meditate on the Scriptures.

Let’s think for a minute about this phrase ‘the Word of God’. Nowadays when Christians use that phrase we tend to think immediately of the Bible. But I would argue that we need to be careful about making a hard and fast identification between the written words of the Bible and the living Word of God.

What do I mean by that? Am I meaning disrespect for the written Scriptures? Not at all; I love the Scriptures, I thank God for giving them to us, and I read them every day. But I also know that as Christians we don’t read them ‘flat’, giving every book the same authority. We don’t, for instance, refuse to profit from our pension plans because they are based on the lending of money at interest, even though this practice is forbidden in parts of the Old Testament. We don’t see it as a compulsory religious duty to circumcise our sons, and we don’t punish sons who curse their fathers by putting them to death. Neither do we believe that God calls people today to wipe out the entire populations of cities, including women, children, and helpless babies, as the people did in the Old Testament book of Joshua.

We also know that, in the Bible, the title ‘The Word of God’ is applied first and foremost to Jesus himself; as the B.A.S. says, “He is your living word, through whom you have created all things”. In the famous words of John’s Gospel:
‘And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

So as faithful followers of Jesus we pray for God’s help to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We know that Jesus stood in continuity with the Old Testament, but at the same time he felt quite free to modify some of its ideas; in the Sermon on the Mount he says several times “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” This is particularly clear with the command to love our enemies; Old Testament people felt quite free to hate their enemies and even commit acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but Jesus does away with that for his followers:
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

So yes: as Christians, we read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. We interpret everything else written in the scriptures according to his teaching and example. St. Paul certainly knew this. In 1 Corinthians chapter 7 he is giving some guidance to the Corinthian Christians about matters of marriage, divorce, celibacy and so on. Several times in the passage he clearly distinguishes between commands he is issuing on his own authority as an apostle, and commands he has received from Jesus in the tradition that was later written down in the gospels. He says things like ‘To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord’ (meaning ‘the Lord Jesus’) (1 Corinthians 7:10), and ‘to the rest I say – I and not the Lord’ (7:12). He obviously feels he’s on much firmer ground when he has a recorded command of Jesus on which to base his teaching.

As so often, C.S. Lewis has wise things to say on this subject. In a letter written to one of his many correspondents in 1952, he says, ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him’. And Martin Luther, in a beautiful image, says, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies. As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus. Don’t let us inspect the cradle and forget to worship the baby.”

To sum up then, for us followers of Jesus ‘reading and meditating on the Word of God’ means reading and meditating on the Scriptures in the light of the things that Jesus said and did. If we read the Scriptures in this way, we will not be so easily led astray.

Now, how can we do this? Let me offer you some suggestions.

First, let’s always remember that the book we call ‘the Bible’ is not actually one book; it’s a library of books, written over a period of at least thirteen hundred years, in languages that no one speaks any more. If you went down to your local library and borrowed some books from the shelves, you’d pay careful attention to the genre of those books. Let’s suppose you borrowed a copy of Dante’s Inferno (which was first written in Italian in the 14th century), a novel, a biography, a book of letters by a famous person, a history of the first settlers to come to Canada, a copy of the criminal code, a book of poetry written by Wordsworth in the 19th century, and a book by Stephen Hawking about the origins of the universe.

Would you read all those books in exactly the same way? Of course not! Many things in the Criminal Code would not be relevant to you. The novel might well contain truth, but it would be a different kind of truth than the history book, and different again from the poetry. Dante’s poetry from the 14th century would be very different from Wordsworth’s from the 19th. In other words, you would pay careful attention to the genre of the books, and adjust your reading expectations accordingly.

The Bible is like that. It begins with what looks very much like a poem or hymn about the creation of the universe, written in seven verses with a common refrain at the end of each verse. There are stories about famous heroes from Israel’s past, sermons from great Old Testament preachers who we call ‘the prophets’, usually collected without giving us much background information about the original occasions when they were preached. There’s a hymn book – the Book of Psalms – collected and used by the Jewish people before the time of Jesus. There are four biographies of Jesus, each written from a different point of view, and there are letters written by early Christian leaders to guide churches they had started. These are just a few examples of the kind of thing we’ll find in the library we call ‘the Holy Scriptures’.

The library has two floors. There’s a ground floor, that most Christians call ‘the Old Testament’; it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and it collects together books written about God’s dealings with the people of Israel from ancient times up to a couple of hundred years before the coming of Jesus. Then there’s an upstairs floor, the New Testament, written in Greek, that tells the story of Jesus and of the early Christians who followed him and spread his message around the Mediterranean world after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. Some Bibles also contain a sort of stairwell between the two floors, a collection of books called ‘the Apocrypha’, written between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New; not all Christians are agreed about the authority of those books – but that’s a subject for another day!

So how shall we explore this library? How shall we ‘read and meditate on the Word of God’ that comes to us through these books? Let me give three suggestions, based around the three words ‘read’, ‘study’, and ‘meditate’.

First, read. I think this is the most pressing need among Anglican Christians today when it comes to Bible knowledge: familiarity with the big picture. If I were to ask you how many of you have read the Bible all the way through, from start to finish, I suspect that only a very small minority would be able to say that you had.

When I was the rector of St. Anne’s Church in Valleyview, I mentioned this in a sermon one day, and one of the people present took me up on it. He wasn’t an especially scholarly guy, but he decided he would read the Bible through from start to finish. He had a Good News Bible, which is a fairly easy translation to read, and he decided to start at the beginning and read every night for fifteen or twenty minutes until he was done. His Bible included the Apocrypha so it was a bit longer than some, and it took him eight months to get through it.

I was actually a little surprised that he stuck with it; a lot of people start out and then give up in Leviticus or Numbers, which are pretty heavy going. But my friend kept on going. I remember that when he was about half way through, he and I went out for coffee, and he confessed to me that he was a little disappointed in the Bible. “I thought it was going to be full of inspiring and uplifting stories”, he said, “but it’s full of awful people who do awful things to each other, and thousands and thousands of animals getting slaughtered in sacrifices. And all those wars!”

Yes, I replied – the books of the Bible are about sinners just like us! Sinners are the only people God’s got to work with! The people in the Bible were tempted like we are, they gave in to temptation like we do, they misunderstood God and got things wrong just like we do. The big picture of the story of the Bible is the story of a God who doesn’t give up on us when we go wrong: he keeps trying to guide and teach his people, and eventually he comes among us as one of us to live and die and rise again for our salvation.
We need to know this big picture a lot better than we do. I think many Anglicans know a few passages of the Bible quite well; we’ve heard them read in church as isolated passages, but we don’t have much idea about where they come from, what comes before and after them, and how they fit into the big picture of the story of the Bible. No wonder we feel so nervous about guiding our kids in their Christian education! No wonder we feel so badly equipped to share our faith with others!

So I would encourage all of you, if you haven’t done so already, just to read the Bible through. Make no mistake – if you do, you’ll hit some passages that are hard to understand, and some passages that annoy you intensely. Don’t worry about that. Just keep on reading. Fifteen minutes a day will take you through the whole Bible in six to eight months, depending on how fast a reader you are. If you come across passages you want to find answers about, or verses you want to meditate on at your leisure, just mark them so you know where to find them. And then carry on reading.

So that’s the first word – read. The second word is study. Studying is our attempt to come to a better understanding of what an individual passage means. In fact, you could say that in these three words – read, study, and meditate – we’re asking three questions: ‘What does it say?’ ‘What does it mean?’ and ‘What does it mean to me?’

In the modern English-speaking world, there are some incredibly helpful resources to help us understand what the Bible means. The most important one, I suggest, is a good study Bible. Study Bibles are simply editions of the Bible with supplementary notes prepared by good Bible scholars. There will be introductions to the books, to tell you when the individual books were written, what we think the historical context was, who the author was (if we know), what we know about him - or them – and what we know about the process by which the book was written. Then at the bottom of each page there will be notes explaining difficult passages, or pointing out allusions to other places in the Bible, and stuff like that. Talk to me afterwards if you want some recommendations for good study Bibles; I’ve got a few!

There are also big fat Bible commentaries, or smaller commentaries on individual books of the Bible. But in my opinion, the best way to start studying is just to get a really good study Bible and become familiar with it.

Also - don’t forget the benefit of studying with others. Some of us in this church belong to Bible study groups. Years ago, a lot more Christians were part of groups like that. Not many years ago, actually; my last church, St. Anne’s Valleyview, had an average Sunday attendance of less than thirty, and it wasn’t unusual for us to get ten or twelve people out to a midweek Bible study group – some of them parents with school age children. Nowadays people seem to have lots of other things to do, and of course our life is busy and stressful. But I think we miss out on something good if we don’t take advantage of opportunities to come together with other Christians to study the Bible.

So we read, we study, and then the last word is ‘meditate’. This is when we ask ‘What does this passage mean to me?’ In other words, how is my life going to be changed by reading it? Personally, I find it helpful to do meditation with a pen in my hand, so that I can write down my thoughts. I’m not good at thinking inside my head; I find it a lot easier to think with my pen.

Here are some helpful questions we can ask the passage we’re reading. What’s the main theme of this passage? Have I learned anything new about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about myself? What surprised me? What shocked me? What annoyed me? Was there a command for me to put into practice, and if so, what would it look like if I tried to live by it today? Was there a good example for me to follow, or a bad example for me to avoid? Was there someone in the story I identified with? If so, why? Was there something that puzzled me, that I’d like to ask someone about?

These are just a few questions that can help us apply a passage of the Bible to our own lives. As we meditate on it, we receive the Word of God into our hearts and we begin to live it out in our daily lives. And that will bring transformation.

Let me close with a word of personal testimony. I’ve been reading the Bible daily since I was about thirteen. A lot of people assume that the reason ministers know so much about the Bible is because they’ve been to seminary to study it. Well, I can’t speak for my clergy colleagues, but I’d have to say that for me, it wasn’t like that. The most important factor in my own Bible knowledge wasn’t studying it in college; it happened long before that. It was when my parents bought me a copy of The Living Bible, one of the early paraphrases, or easy to understand versions of the Bible. I don’t remember exactly when that happened but I’m guessing I would have been about fourteen.

Nowadays I don’t really recommend The Living Bible, because it’s not too accurate, although there is a modern version of it, The New Living Translation, that’s a lot better. But what The Living Bible did for me was to encourage me to read it through, just like a book. I’m sure I read it all the way through two or three times before I was out of my teens. And that’s what laid the foundation for all my Bible study since then.

So – let’s read it, let’s study it, let’s meditate on it and put it into practice in our lives. If we do that, the living word of God will transform us, and that will make all the difference.

No comments: