The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Third Sunday in Lent
Part 3 of Sermon Series “Practicing Christian”
This week, we continue our sermon series on the six marks of Discipleship, six spiritual practices for following Jesus. Last week we did worship. Which is a pretty common discipline. We’re doing it right now!
But this week’s different. It’s “Reading Scripture,” reading the Bible. My guess that this spiritual discipline is far less popular than worship among us all. I’m going to go ahead and wager that only a small percentage of us engage with the Bible regularly outside of Sunday, on our own, or with others. I’m sure that part of that has to do with time. We’re busy, we read less. But I also think that it can just seem intimidating. Or confusing. Or just plain old boring. Some of us read it regularly, faithfully. But the truth is that few of us actually read the Bible on our own.
It’s okay to admit it. Because it’s a hard discipline to take up. But today I want us to consider what we’re missing by not reading it. And maybe that’ll kindle a deeper desire in us to actually wanna read it by clearing up some of the intimidation and confusion. Who knows, it might even make it less boring. And more relevant to everyday life.
Today’s scripture passage from the Second Letter to Timothy is actually a good place for us to start. Because it’s all about the use of the Bible. The letter says it’s from the Apostle Paul to Timothy, his protégé. Truth be told, scholars highly dispute that the original Paul is the author of the letter. But that doesn’t matter to us today. It’s the content of this passage that matters.
First of all, this passage tells us that reading the Bible is a powerful spiritual practice, because it represents hundreds, if not thousands of years of spiritual wisdom, thinking, and experience.
“Continue in what you’ve learned and firmly believed,” it begins. “Continue in what you’ve learned and believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”
Timothy didn’t just pick up the Bible one day, sit down, read it through, and then magically have his life changed. He’s been guided by instructors and tutors, like Paul. In that sense it’s this already-existing spiritual path, through the thick and dangerous woods of human experience.
Because the thing about the Bible is that it’s been a source of spiritual reflection and wisdom for billions of people for two-thousand plus years. People of all kinds from diverse places as ancient Egypt, first century Israel, eighth century Ethiopia, Sixteenth century Germany and modern day Korea have lived with it, meditated on it, struggled with it, and have been transformed by it. Generation after generation after generation. So it's not only a spiritual path, it’s one already well-worn by billions of footsteps. So there has to be something reliable about it. The book’s been this durable for a reason.
The Bible is wisdom. So in not reading the Bible, we’re missing out on countless years of spiritual wisdom, thinking, and experience. Which suggests if it’s worked for all of these people, then it can work for us.
Second, reading the Bible is a powerful spiritual practice, because it brings us into deeper knowledge of God. God being the word we use for the creative source and sustainer of all things.
Remember, it says. Remember (Timothy) “how from childhood you’ve known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
It says that the sacred writings instruct for salvation. Which is actually only the Old Testament in this case as the New Testament hadn’t been compiled or finalized here yet. But I like how the old King James Version puts it, the writings are there “to make thee wise unto salvation.” On one hand, salvation means freedom, liberation, redemption, from all those things that hold us captive and hold us back from abundant life. On the other hand it also means healing. Being healed, being made whole. Being forgiven, receiving mercy.
Salvation is God’s work. It’s what God is up to in the world. The Bible bears witness, it points to salvation. As a whole it bears witness to numerous different experiences, some obvious, some mysterious, some poetic, some metaphorical, some historical. It initiates us in to mystery of how God works in the world.
It points to the action, but it also points to the source of those actions. It says this salvation comes “through faith in Jesus Christ.” It’s not only about what God does, but who God is. According to the longer Christian tradition, we come to see God most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He’s like a microscope that brings that deeper mystery of the source of all things into focus.
In this way, the Bible isn’t a holy thing in of itself. It’s not a sort of Paper Pope. But the Bible is more like the Christmas manger.[i] The manger isn’t the point of the story, but it’s the vessel there to bring to us the point of the story. It says that if you want to know something about God, then look deeply into the window of the life, death, and resurrection of this man called Jesus, whose life we meet in the pages of the Bible.
The Bible’s about God. So in not reading the Bible, we’re missing out on deep knowledge and wisdom about the source of all life. It helps us look for, and comprehend who the Creator is, what he’s like, and what she’s at work doing in our lives and our world. It can make us “wise unto salvation.”
Third, reading the Bible is a powerful spiritual practice, not only because it deepens our knowledge of God, but because it also brings us into deeper knowledge of ourselves, and who we are.
“All scripture,” it says, “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, and for correction.”
First of all it says that “all scripture is inspired.” This doesn’t mean that the Bible is without error, or that every sentence is of equal value. The word Greek word used here for “inspired” is “theopneustos,” meaning “God-breathed.”[ii] Here it’s a reference to two different Old Testament stories: the first—the creation of the first human out of dust. Here God breathes life in to him. The second is Ezekiel, where there’s a valley filled with thousands of dried bones. Here God’s breath fills and re-animates these corpses. Here the Bible is treated as a living thing. Something we not only engage with, but something that seeks us, and engages us.[iii] On its own, it’s just a book, a lifeless body. But with the help of God’s Spirit, it becomes a living, breathing, medium of divine communication. For God to speak to us.
And one of the ways that it speaks to or shines a light on us is through the people in it. The Bible is full of people just like us. People who have the same virtues, and the same vices. Hate to ruin it for you, but—other than Jesus—everyone else in the Bible do and say deeply disappointing things. Noah gets drunk, Abraham pretends his wife isn’t his wife to save his own skin. Moses kills a guy in anger. All of his disciples abandon Jesus in his hour of need.
The Bible’s good for “Teaching,” it says. “Reproof, and correction.” The Bible has this way of holding itself up as a mirror to our lives. To show us our unvarnished humanity, warts and all. Good stuff, but mostly the not-so good stuff. The Book of Hebrews says “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword … it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, and before him no creature is hidden.” It shows us ourselves… Not to make us feel bad, but to allow us to reflect truthfully on our brokenness, our limitations, and our need for the one-way love of grace.
I’m reminded of the Soviet comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who used to say things like. “In USA, you watch television. In Soviet Russia, television watches you.” In Christian Church, you don’t just read Bible. Bible reads you.
The Bible’s about us. In not reading the Bible, we miss out on the opportunity to come to terms with who we are, for the purpose of transcending who we are.
Finally, reading the Bible is a powerful spiritual practice because it’s practical. It helps us understand and live the good life.
In addition to teaching, reproof, and correction it’s also for “training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
Training in righteousness, it says. Which reminds me of someone in shorts twisting around with a medicine ball, or white sneakers on a treadmill. But here the exercise is “righteousness.” For us, “righteousness” is usually a bad thing, as in “self-righteousness,” being all high and mighty. But here it means to be set right. To be righteous means to “get things right.”[iv] It’s to be set on the proper path, with Jesus as the perfect instance and example of getting human life right, righteousness in action. To be “trained in righteousness,” means something like becoming an apprentice, with the final goal in becoming more like God, by becoming like Jesus the master craftsman.
In Jesus, the Bible gives us a sort of curriculum for getting the practice of being human right. Our training should lead us to be “proficient,” it says, and “equipped for every good work.” The end goal of our reading the Bible is always to empower us to live more full, more good, more true and beautiful lives. The fruit of a relationship with God through reading the Bible is the power to do good. To be freed from the things that imprison us in order to do those things that being life to us and the world.
The Bible’s power resides in its purpose to equip us with the spiritual resources for the difficult task of loving our enemies, and blessing those who persecute us. Caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. To love our neighbors as ourselves. To seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. “To increase love of God and neighbour,” in the words of St. Augustine. If that’s not the outcome, then we’re simply not reading it right.
You could say the Bible’s worth reading because it gives us a field guild for living the Jesus Way. It offers us practical wisdom, a living relationship and time-tested spiritual curriculum that shifts us away from the misery of self-centeredness to the joy of giving our selves away in love.
In the end, in not reading the Bible, we miss out on learning to live the full, beautiful, and good human life.
So that’s what the Bible’s good for, and what we miss when we don’t read it. Deep, vast ancient wisdom, knowledge of God, and knowledge of ourselves. All for the purpose of renewing us, and re-fashioning us into the image of Jesus. That’s been my experience, and no doubt many of you here would agree. But for those of you who don’t read, or engage with the Bible regularly, my hope is that you would be encouraged to give it a try. To take it up as a regular practice, if even a little bit at first, to see what we’re missing out on when we don’t (see the attachment). And for those of you who are already experienced Bible practitioners, I hope this Lenten season will be a time of renewal, or looking at it in a new light.
Regardless, through our reading may each of us continue to trod this well-worn spiritual path, becoming not only wise, but “wise unto salvation.”
[i] “Therefore let your own thoughts and feelings go, and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines, which can never be worked out, so that you may find the wisdom of God that He lays before you in such foolish and simple guise, in order that He may quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling-clothes and the mangers in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and little are the swaddling-clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them.” Martin Luther, introduction to the Old Testament, http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_f8.htm
[ii] In reference to the inerrancy and scientific accuracy of the Bible James D.G. Dunn writes that “too much time is misspent asking of scripture what it was not designed to answer” James Dunn, “2 Timothy,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Comentary, vol 11 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 853.
[iii] Robert W. Wall and Anthony B. Robinson, Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 215.
[iv] Frederick Buechner, “Righteousness,” in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 82.