Your word is a lamp before my feetWES:
and a light for my journey. (Psalm 119:105 CEB)
I want to welcome Lance and Steven to the platform this morning. Today, they will join me up here as we have an important conversation together.
Throughout this entire year, we’ve been diving deeply in one of the most important values of our Glenwood family, “A Truth that Challenges.” In other words, we’ve been focusing intently on our passion for Scripture. We try to focus in on a different part of our vision each year, as you both know. And this year has been great. When I first came to Glenwood five years ago, one of the first things we did together was walk through a vision process. That is where our mission statement: “Graciously helping a fallen world stand up again” was born. And during that same process, we brought to the surface five values that have always provided direction for this church. And chief among those values is our allegiance to the Word of God. In fact, I bet if we were to poll the church this morning and ask them: “What does this family value?” at the top of that list would be the Word of God. Our fellowship, Churches of Christ, and our specific family, Glenwood, has always valued Scripture!
Some people may not know this about me, but I am secretly Baptist. I grew up in the Church of Christ, but I graduated from a Baptist college. While I was in college I needed one last course credit to graduate that they were not offering before I my graduation date, so instead they set up a substitute class between me and one of the professors. It wasn’t really a class it was just me and this professor meeting in his office two to three times a week.
One day I mentioned the LTC conference was on Easter Weekend. And the professor couldn’t understand why we would plan such a big retreat weekend on Easter. I began explaining some of the more unique traditions and beliefs of the churches of Christ and from that point on, every time I came into his office he wanted to know more about the church of Christ. So much so, that I realized I needed to know more than I did.
I began studying (on my own) our tradition, something I really hadn’t done before, and began learning things about why we do some of the things we do. Things that no one in all my years in Sunday school ever bothered to tell me. And I realized that even though no one ever taught me the reasons behind our traditions, I wholeheartedly agreed with them.
Chief among those things was our deep love, and high esteem for Scripture. Our desire from the beginnings of our movement to be led and guided first and foremost by scripture. And whether we specifically point that out or not, I think it is still alive and well in Glenwood today. We want to instill in our members a deep love for scripture, and so we have challenged our members with things like the 100,000 chapter challenge. Through the reciting of our benediction verse every Sunday, and even through our deep study of Scripture on difficult and controversial topics, in all those things, it is our high view and love of scripture that guides and motivates us.
Scripture has always been central to the life of the church. The church was born in a culture that was permeated with the sacred texts of Judaism, texts that we now refer to as the Old Testament. The stories, poems, prayers, and prophecies that make up the Old Testament profoundly shaped Jesus’s life. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he quoted Scripture. When he hung on the cross, he quoted Scripture. When the early church had to make tough decisions, such as how to welcome and embrace non-Jewish Christ-followers, they consulted Scripture. When the church went off the tracks in the Middle Ages, people like Martin Luther began a “back to the Bible” movement known as the Reformation. And when the American church found itself splintered and divided in a hundred different ways in the 19th century, people like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell called the church back to the Bible. These are the roots of Churches of Christ. This is why Glenwood values Scripture. Our faith community is not unique in this regard; we are part of a Scripture-oriented tradition that stretches way back into the ancient world of Judaism.
You know, it is interesting: as much emphasis as we’ve put on the Bible, sometimes I feel like we don’t fully appreciate the gift that has been given to us. I used to watch the sitcom Seinfeld. (I, of course, watched it for its theological lessons). I will never forget an episode that featured Jerry Seinfeld’s parents. His parents lived in Florida in a retirement village named “Del Boca Vista, Phase 3.” The episodes that featured his parents were great. Jerry would travel south from New York to Florida to visit his parents, and he’d get to experience life at the retirement village. On one of those episodes, Jerry bought his dad an expensive digital organizer called a Wizard. It cost $200 and could do just about anything. But, in passing, Jerry mentioned that his dad could use his new Wizard to calculate the amount of tip he should leave at a restaurant. So, from that point forward, his dad called it his “Tip Calculator,” and that is all he ever used it for. Sometimes, I think that is how we use the Bible. We only scratch the surface of what the Bible can and should do for us. Have either of you noticed that?
Scripture functions in many ways. I want to touch on two of them that I think are very important. First, Scripture is a narrative. It’s a story about God, the world, and humankind. It answers two bedrock questions for us, What is life, and Why do we live it? From the very beginning, in the book of Genesis, Scripture serves as a counter-narrative to the world’s answers to these questions. In the ancient near east, there were several stories about who God is (or who the gods were), how the world was formed, and the place of humankind in the world. Genesis (as well as Exodus) provided a counter-narrative for the Jewish people. It told a different story. The God of the Bible is sovereign, good, loving, and merciful. Creation is good. And human beings are good—they are God’s image-bearers who share in God’s life and are entrusted by God to take care of the world. Today, we hear and buy in to a lot of stories about life, the world, and human beings that are not congruent with the story of the Bible. A lot of these stories are dehumanizing, divisive, and shaming. They encourage violence, competition, individualism, nationalism, greed and hedonism. One common narrative in our world is that success is the accumulation of power, popularity and possessions. The narrative of Scripture, however, tells a different narrative. In this narrative, the Creator of the universe became a human being with skin, nails, intestines, dependent on food and water like the rest of us. Not only that, but he served the poor and died for murderers and molesters. God in Christ shows us what it means to be the human beings God created us to be. These are two very different narratives about the meaning of life. The question is, which narrative will we claim as our own? An early church father once said we need to “swim” in Scripture. Not just get our feet wet, but swim. If we don’t swim in Scripture, we will be swept away by the powerful currents of false narratives.
Lance, If I can interrupt you for a moment, I’m glad you brought that up. I had a teenager ask me one time if we could spend more time on Sunday singing or playing games. They said they spend all week and all day in school learning and listening to lectures and they wish they didn’t have to do it one more time at church. To be honest I was hurt. I take pride in what I teach, and like both of you I spend a lot of time preparing for it. But that isn’t what bothered me about this question. As you mentioned Lance, I, too, believe the stories we tell, the stories we listen to and immerse ourselves in. Those stories are life shaping. They determine who we are, what we believe, and what we value. We spend so much of our time listening to stories that, if we are honest, are contradictory to Scripture, stories that (like you said) are dehumanizing and violent, stories that are shaping our lives and the lives of our children, and the question bothered me the most, because I felt like Sunday morning is the ONLY time we are hearing, AND being shaped by the story of God.
Second, Scripture is a means of communion with God and formation into the image of God’s Son by the power of the Spirit. We read Scripture in order to participate in the life of Father, Son, and Spirit. Scripture is not God. We do not worship the Bible. Instead, the Holy Spirit invites us to share in the life of the Trinity through Scripture. The ultimate purpose of Scripture is not information. It’s not head-knowledge. The ultimate purpose of Scripture is to open our souls to the Holy Spirit so that “Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith” and we may be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3).
When we began this year by focusing on the Bible, and we challenged the church to read 100,000 chapters, I said something that is worth repeating this morning. The most important thing about the challenge is not the number of chapters we read! The most important thing is that we spend time in God’s Word on a regular basis. This challenge was one tool we came up with to encourage folks to make daily Bible reading a regular habit. But there are certainly other ways to read the Bible besides accumulating a large number of chapters.
A really good book on this subject is Eugene Peterson’s, Eat this Book. In it, he says that many Christians are neglecting Scripture. It’s not that they don’t read the Bible. They do. Instead, he writes this, “What is neglected is reading the Scriptures formatively, reading in order to live. Reading is an immense gift,” he says, “but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul, eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” The practice that he describes in his book that serves as an alternative to our hurried approach through Scripture is Lectio Divina. This is an ancient practice that has been in the church for at least 1,500 years. However, only recently have many of us begun to hear about this way of reading Scripture. This is because the primary emphasis in much of the Western church, including our tradition, is to read primarily for information, not formation. Lectio is a simple practice. Yet, it is difficult for many of us because it’s not the way we learned to read the Bible. Lectio is a conversation between the text, the Spirit, and my life. Lectio is prayer and Bible reading combined into one. It’s a three-way conversation. To simplify it, some people break it down to four steps: Read, Reflect, Respond (in prayerful dialogue), and Rest (in the Spirit’s presence coming to us through the text). And let me say this, I believe that every passage of Scripture is like a bottomless ocean when you read Scripture in this way. You can swim in one passage for weeks, months, and even years at a time, and never reach the bottom of that passage. It keeps on giving, challenging, inviting, and calling forth our surrender and obedience. This is the difference between reading for information and reading for transformation.
I remember the first time I experienced Lectio Divina in Grad School. At first, it was so uncomfortable. It felt like reading a foreign language. But, over time, I came to experience a real blessing in reading the Bible like this. Most of the time we go to the Bible with questions. What does the Bible say about marriage? What does the Bible say about science? What does the Bible say about women’s role in the church? We go to the Bible with our questions. Lectio Divina forces us to leave our questions at the door. We go in with a blank slate. We go in listening for what God might want to say to us today, in this moment.
I’m going to throw John under the bus here for a minute. We were talking about this way of reading the Bible recently and he said he too learned about it during Grad School. He said he tried to read the Bible this way for YEARS until he finally began to experience the blessing that comes with it. That’s how spiritual disciplines are sometimes. We have to stick with it. That is why they are called “disciplines.”
I’m reminded of a story in Joshua chapter four where Joshua is bringing the Israelites across the Jordan and into the promise land for the first time. As the ark of the covenant passes through the parted waters on dry ground Joshua commands 12 men to pick up stones out of the river bed and set them up in the middle of town. And he explains why, he says when your children see these stones and ask why they are here, tell them about the wonderful and amazing things God has done for his people.
The stones were meant to serve as a reminder—a reminder to reflect on and retell the story of God. And I believe 100,000 chapters is the same thing, it is sort of our way of setting up stones in the middle of the worship center to remind us to reflect and retell the story of God in our own lives.
Well, as I said, the most important thing is that we are spending regular time with God in God’s Word. And this morning, we have another challenge for you as part of our STAND@Home ministry. Steven, why don’t you tell us about it.
We are talking about Scripture today to kick off our fall STAND@home campaign. We are calling this campaign Word 511 which is simply designed to act as a reminder. We are challenging all our families and members to spend five days a week in God's word, one day a week reading with your spouse, and one day a week reading as a family. So five days alone, one with your spouse, one with your family: 5-1-1.
We believe it is so important that you—that we all—are spending time in God's word because of all the things we have been discussing today. And so we want to challenge you to incorporate the Word 511 challenge into your life over the next 50 days.
Numbers are not the goal; spending time in God’s Word is the goal. You may even want to spend your entire week or month on one text and read it slowly over and over again.
Lance, without a doubt, you took the words right out of my mouth. As ministers, one of our roles here is to equip the saints for service. So, I want us to find ways to help the church put these spiritual disciplines into practice. If you are reading through the Bible with us this year, fantastic! If you prefer to move slowly at another pace, that is great too. The important thing is: Spend time alone with God in God’s Word.
A few days ago, in my own daily time with God’s Word, I read again Psalm 119. Right in the middle of that chapter is one of my favorite descriptions of the Bible. Psalm 119:105 says: “Your Word is a lamp before my feet and a light for my journey.” That description of Scripture explains why I want us to spend so much time in God’s Word. As we make a habit of spending time daily with God, we, over time, begin to understand better the character and nature of God. And that revelation does provide a light for our journey. It helps us see better the path God would have us follow in life.