The Way to Read Scripture

I have always loved words, and especially the way that words could open up stories for me. I could travel to far off places, or meet characters that took risks. I loved learning about new things in adventures or mysteries, and especially stories that gripped me with detail. Stories get into our lives—I know that I can have my mood impacted by a book I am reading—and they can shape how we think about the world.

Words are important. And so when we are encouraged to read on meditate on God’s Holy Word during this season of Lent, I find it very comforting. We are being encouraged to read and hear the stories of our faith again in a new way and to think about the plots and characters and words given to us in Scripture.

A sermon based on John 3:14-21.

It is no secret of course that many of us do not read scripture with any regularity. And this is true even though the Bible has over 4 billion copies in print—more than any other book—with many of those copies in seemingly perfect condition. As George Gallup Jr. once put it, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don’t read it.” A Barna study goes further, “American Christians are biblically illiterate. Although most of them contend that the Bible contains truth and is worth knowing, and most of them argue that they know all of the relevant truths and principles, our research shows otherwise. And the trend line is frightening: the younger a person is, the less they understand about the Christian faith.” We do not know the stories of our faith either because we think they don’t add much value to our lives or because we think we know it all already.

I’m not going to pile on a bunch of guilt to make you read scripture. I’ve been around long enough as a priest to recognize that guilt leads to issues down the road, so this morning I’m taking a page out of Jesus’ playbook. You did catch it, didn’t you? Jesus, in the passage from John we read today, says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus came to offer us light and love, not condemnation or conviction. I think Jesus didn’t want us to be bogged down by shame and guilt, but he wanted to instead point the way toward the best life that he wants all of us to have. 

And I think the basis of that life can be found in scripture. The Bible gets a bad rap these days because some try to use it as a club to force others into agreement about one issue or another. Verses are pulled out willy-nilly—and often out of context—to make a point (this is called proof-texting, by the way). Instead, I think that scripture is a long narrative to show us how God has interacted with human history in the past and how God wants to interact with us today. The point of this story is quite simple: God began the world with the intention that we might have abundant life. We messed this up, and God has been working to restore us and all humanity to the place where it will be as God has always intended it to be. Abundant life.

So that’s why we should read God’s word, to hear the stories, to think about what they mean, to see if they can relate to our world today. To recognize above all else that God loves us, and that in the end, love wins. But we don’t read it because we think we know it already. Most people don’t realize, for example, that there are two different creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis. Many don’t notice that Jesus’ birth in Luke with the shepherds and stable and singing angels is nothing like Matthew with the Magi and the home that Jesus lived in with his parents. But because we “know” these stories, we don’t bother to pick up the Bible.

One of my favorite biblical accounts is that of Joseph, the son of Jacob. He was the one who got the special coat from his father and was quite a dreamer, all of which annoyed his 10 older brothers. They were jealous of him because he was Dad’s favorite, and so they sold him to traders heading down to Egypt and then telling Dad he was killed by a fierce wild beast. What I like about Joseph is that he didn’t stop being who he was even though he was sold into slavery. He maintained his integrity through thick and thin. He became a powerful man in his master’s house, lost it all due to the scheming of master’s wife, and even though he was thrown into prison, never stopped living his life with integrity. After some years in prison where he had become a leader among the inmates and respected by the guards, Joseph became the second most powerful person in Egypt behind only Pharaoh.

He ends up confronting his brothers while offering redemption to them when they come to Egypt looking for food during a seven-year drought. Joseph stayed true to his faith—and his family—throughout his life.

Maybe it’s not Joseph so much for you, as it is Esther. She was the Jewish woman in exile who became the wife of the Persian king. Along the way, she learns that her husband’s advisor Haman seeks to kill all Jews, and, with the support of her uncle who tells her she came into that role for such a time as this, Esther saves her people, and Haman is put to death. Or maybe it’s Peter you resonate with, the disciple who was always taking 3 steps forward and then 2 steps back. He says Jesus is the Christ, then he tells him that he didn’t need to die which earned him a stern rebuke. Peter just bumbles along in his faith it seems, often speaking without thinking.

I mention these three—and there are hundreds more, like Ruth, or Joshua, or David, or Mary Magdalene—to show you that the Bible is full of stories of people with virtues and vices just like us (we know about Noah’s ark, for example, but we rarely talk about his love for wine which was not a good thing). But we won’t know these stories if we don’t read them. God worked in and among ordinary human beings, and we’ve been handed all the details of these interactions with the one overarching theme: God both loves and wants to bring redemption to the world.

And God wants to bring redemption to us. One of the ways God does that is through our reading and meditating on Scripture. 

Eugene Peterson writes about the importance of reading Scripture in his book called Eat this Book. He writes, “What I mean to insist upon is that spiritual writing… requires spiritual reading, a reading that honors words as holy, words as a basic means of forming an intricate web of relationships between God and the human, between all things visible and invisible. There is only one way of reading that is congruent with our Holy Scriptures, writing that trusts in the power of words to penetrate our lives and create truth and beauty and goodness, writing that requires a reader who … ‘does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and it’s meaning spreads through his blood.’” God’s word getting into you and changing you.

That’s the point, by the way. That eventually God’s story becomes your story. That you get to a place where your reading of the Bible turns into the Bible reading you.

If you’ve never picked up the Bible to read it on a regular—perhaps daily—basis, I’d suggest you begin with the Gospel of Mark. If you don’t know where to find it, look in the table of contents under the New Testament. Let the stories of Jesus’ interaction in the world around him wash over you. If you’ve read Mark and want something else, try the letter to the Philippians (an epistle written by Paul) or the book of Ruth or the First Letter of John near the end of the Bible. Give yourself ample time to lean back and close your eyes and really think about what is said, allowing the power of God’s word to enter into you.

When you make time to do this, I know that God will move in your life. You will become more and more a person who chooses light over darkness, who begins to see how God wants to bring redemption to you and your story. God can do this if we open ourselves up to the fullness of God’s love. “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved by him.” We can choose to experience God’s salvation in our lives this Lent, and we can draw closer to the One who longs to enter more fully into our own stories. May it be so.

Image by Tep Ro from Pixabay.

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