December 4 will be Covenant Renewal Sunday at BRC. Our theme for that day and the weeks leading up to it is “Building up the Body.” Each week we’re inviting people to reflect on one of Nine Spiritual Practices that the Scriptures tell us are important for the functioning of a growing, healthy “body,” or what the New Testament calls “the body of Christ,” Christ’s church. At BRC we believe that being the body of Christ is an extremely high calling. We feel both honored and humbled to part of a community that is intentional about playing our part in Christ’s mission to the world. Obviously, in order to make Christ known, we have to know him ourselves. In order to make disciples, we need to be disciples.
This week’s spiritual practice is: Meet God Daily in the Scriptures. Note that we’re not just talking about reading the Bible, but actually meeting God there. The idea is to meet God, the real and personal God, while we’re engaging with the words and ideas and stories of Scripture. Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly….” It’s while meditating on Scripture that we’re most likely to encounter and experience the living God. It can happen during a sermon, in a group Bible study, or during one’s personal devotions. My experience as a pastor tells me that people who’ve learned how to encounter God in their personal reading of Scripture are more likely to hear and learn in meaningful ways when gathering with other disciples around the word.
How would you describe your current relationship with Scripture? Be honest. What do you like about the Bible? What makes you feel uneasy? What do you think keeps you from engaging with the Bible daily? What’s gotten you stopped or tripped you up in the past? For those who’ve managed to incorporate reading Scripture into your daily routine, how much of it is simply a routine, and how much is consciously engaging with the living God? Are you reading for information or transformation?
There are some misconceptions about the Bible that can complicate our reading of the Bible. I’ve heard a number of people describe the Bible as a love letter from God. I’d say that was quite a stretch. There is a lot in the Bible that is simply sordid and upsetting. That’s because the Bible is about real human beings, the best of whom fail miserably at times. As Rob Bell once put it, if you take all the sin out of the Bible, all you have left is a pamphlet.
On the other hand, I think a good argument could be made for the Bible being a love story, a story that shows again and again that the essence of God is love. Sometimes that’s not clear at a particular moment in the story. Sometimes God gets pretty ticked off. Because one of God’s roles is judge — someone whose job it is to maintain some degree of moral order in the world — we may find ourselves getting upset or frightened because he is, well, doing his job.
But when you read the entire story, you discover that judgment is never God’s last word, nor his first word. He normally gives lots of words and lots of warnings before he judges. (Some of the biblical writers complain about God being too slow to judge.) What pops out is that God is quick to forgive when there is even the slightest, mostly self-serving sort of contrition and repentance (think prodigal son). When he does finally judge, (which usually involves allowing people to experience the natural consequences of their choices), he can’t help but promise an even better future than they were envisioning before they began blowing him off.
So while the Bible isn’t a love letter, it is a love story. And when God engages us while reading his word, he’s signaling that he wants us to be part of that story. He wants to include us, even to the point of adopting us as his own daughters and sons. That may require our serving others like Jesus did. It may even cost us our lives. But Jesus set the new gold standard for love when he died on the cross for us and for our reconciliation, liberation and transformation. Whenever we get confused while reading other parts of the Bible, we always want to go back to the cross, like Jesus tells us to during communion: “Do this in remembrance of me.” It’s in Christ that all the ambiguities and paradoxes and contradictions get reconciled. He alone is the way, the truth and the life.
Another misconception about the Bible is that it’s a do-it-yourself manual. The Bible doesn’t actually contain step-by-step instructions on how to have a relationship with God or be a good Christian. It’s not even user-friendly. Even Jesus’ teachings baffled his closest followers. In other words, the Holy Spirit that inspired the Bible is the same Spirit that’s needed to read, interpret and apply the Bible today. That’s how it’s designed. So don’t feel bad if on your own you’re not able to get much out of reading the Bible. The reason we want to meet God there is so that he can be our Teacher, and Scripture is the most likely place he’s going to speak to us.
Samuel Williamson, author of Hearing God in Conversation, offers this insight:
Scripture is the training ground – or rather, tuning ground – in which our ears learn to detect and recognize the still, small whispers of God. Once our ears are attuned to God’s voice in the Bible, we will begin to recognize his voice elsewhere, speaking to us in the most surprising moments – waiting for a cashier, washing the dishes, or having coffee with a friend.
Sometimes we have our own agendas for reading the Bible. Some of those agendas may be better than others, and yet God, in his grace, usually meets us where we’re at. He’s never stingy toward people wanting, for whatever reason, to know his will and the salvation he offers.
The Bible itself offers some good advice on how to view the Bible and how to come to it. For example in John 5:39-40 Jesus says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
So reading and meditating on Scripture is a way to come to Jesus. This reminds us that Scripture is as much a meeting place as it is a reading place. It’s not just a library of books by different authors, it’s a place where we encounter the living Lord.
The Bible is also a book about salvation. It’s where we learn about how salvation happened and happens. It’s a place where Jesus and his Spirit currently administer the benefits of salvation to each Christ follower and his church:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you.
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 1:23-2:3)
It’s essential that we think of salvation not only in personal but global and even universal terms. God’s “plan of salvation” includes the eventual uniting of everything in heaven and earth in Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10). Personal righteousness and global justice go hand-in-hand. So we don’t just read the Bible to bolster our personal piety. Poverty, racial injustice, sexism, and tribalism in all forms are addressed in Scripture. The Bible calls for both honest introspection and outer action as we seek to witness to the healing, reconciling power of God’s kingdom.
The Bible is also where we come to know God. Not just know about God. This knowing is personal, conversational, even intimate. In the Old Testament the word “know” sometimes refers to the act of love-making. Actually, when you think about it, love-making looks a lot like wrestling. The name for God’s people under the old covenant was “Israel,” a word that means “God-wrestler.” The name was first given to Jacob, who was as much a scoundrel as he was one of Israel’s most celebrated patriarchs. He literally wrestled with God through an entire night and refused to let go until he received a blessing. (If that isn’t the metaphor for how to read the Bible, I don’t know what is!) Of course, the greatest blessing is coming to know God himself more and more deeply: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Then there is how the Bible helps us know ourselves. Augustine prayed, “Let me know myself; let me know Thee.” John Calvin said, “Nearly all wisdom we possess . . . consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” The writer of Hebrews captures both the blessing and the pain of this process: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Of course, the purpose for knowing ourselves isn’t just conviction but transformation. Meeting Christ in the Scriptures is part of our discipleship. A disciple is someone who is looking not only to learn but to change; specifically, to become more like the Master. So Paul writes to his protégé Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Finally, engaging with Christ through the Scriptures is essential for building up the body of Christ:
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:11-16 – see also Colossians 3:12-17)
Our unity and growth as a body is fueled by our “knowledge of the Son of God.” The best way to be Christ is to meet Christ and be transformed by his Spirit. The Scriptures enable us to go back in time even while we encounter Christ now in those ancient words and stories: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
Words require work. So does any kind of communication, and the work of understanding words is necessary in any relationship. Are we willing to take the necessary time, give the necessary attention, ask the necessary/honest questions, listen, wait, wrestle, wonder?
Sounds like love to me.
Let me offer a couple of practical suggestions in closing. Experiment with a set time each day to meet Christ in the Scriptures. That way you’re not having to decide each day whether or when you’re going read and meditate. Try a set time for a week — morning, noon or night — and see how it goes.
The second suggestion is to follow a reading plan. Just as you don’t want to have to decide each day whether you’re going to read the Bible, you don’t want to have to decide what Scripture you’re going to read. Without a reading plan, we’re less likely to get to it or to be consistent. There are a slew of Bible reading plans out there. (Just Google “Bible reading plans.”) Many of us use what’s called the daily lectionary. (This month’s is found here.) Your plan may be to read one of the gospels at your own pace. You may hear something in a sermon that will help you “sense” the next Bible book you are to read. You may want to read just the gospel reading of the daily lectionary, or switch it up with the Old Testament or Epistle or Psalm reading for the day. Just come up with some kind of plan. Simply opening your Bible and reading whatever is in front of you may work on occasion, but it’s not going to give you the continuity and context that’s important for your long-term learning and hearing God.
Finally, keep a journal or notebook. You don’t have to write a lot in it. I often simply write down phrases or sentences from the day’s readings. I also try to jot down whatever I sense God is saying to me personally. After you’re done reading and writing, you may want to pray to God about what you heard.
Will you spend some time asking God for his direction about this important spiritual practice — not only for your sake, but for the body of Christ at BRC?