You can find quite a few shelves at your local Barnes and Noble devoted to Bibles. It’s normally cited as the most printed book of all time (records are hard to verify, though, due to sales figures of all the different types, never mind the Gideon freebies). Yet we don’t read the Bible.
So we own Bibles, lots of them — as a priest I’ve got easily a dozen around my study and home—and don’t crack them open. Or we do crack them open and point to a passage thinking it will answer life’s hardest questions. That’s Bible as Magic 8 Ball.
But I would argue that we should bother reading the Bible on a regular basis not so we can argue if it is literally true, rather so we can hear and see and inwardly digest how God moves in our world. That was the basis for my sermon on Sunday using John 3:14-21 as a jumping point.
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 novel 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 all 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.
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 likely has over a billion copies in print—more than any other book—with many of those copies in seemingly perfect condition. As George Gallup Jr. 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 the don’t add much if any value to our lives or because we think we know it all already.
I’m not one to pile on a bunch of guilt to make you do something I think we all should be doing, in this case reading 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 get 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 one big narrative to show us how God has interacted with human history in the past and how God wants to interact with us. The point of this story is quite simple: God began the world with the intention that we 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 just like God had 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 because we think we know it already. Most people don’t realize, however, that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis (seriously, read Genesis 1 and then Genesis 2, they are very different, including the order in which things get made). 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 like the back of our hands, 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 that got the special coat from his father and was quite a dreamer, all of which really annoyed his 10 older brothers. They were jealous of him because he was dad’s favorite, and so they sold him to some traders heading down to Egypt 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 another person, and even though he was thrown into prison, never stopped living his life with integrity. After a number of years in prison where he had became a leader among the inmates and well respected by the guards, Joseph became the second most powerful person in Egypt behind only the 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 entire life.
Maybe it’s not Joseph so much for you, as the conversion and life of St. Paul. Early in his life he attacked Christians, putting them to death. On a single day he had a massive conversion experience, changing his ways forever, and then after some time he became the apostle who shared the message of Jesus with the Gentile world. 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 got him a stern rebuke from Jesus. 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 Esther, Joshua or David—to show you that the Bible is full of these stories of people with virtues and vices just like us (we know about Noah’s ark, we don’t know 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 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 publication titled Eat this Book. He says this, “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 point where your reading the Bible turns into the Bible reading you.
If you’ve never picked up the Bible to read it on a regular—even 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 either the letter of First John near the end of the Bible or Philippians (an epistle written by Paul). 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 people who choose light over darkness, who begin 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.” May we experience God’s salvation in our lives this Lent, and may we draw ever closer to the one who longs to become our story. Amen.