Growing Up—The Scripture That Guides Us
January 12, 2014
As has already been mentioned, the penny is the most common coin in circulation in the United States. For almost all of us in this room, we have held, used and carried in our possession countless pennies throughout our lives. In fact, my hunch is that before we gave you a penny this morning, many of you already had one or more in your pocket or purse.
But, how well do we know the common penny? For instance, without looking, did you know that old honest Abe faces to the right rather than the left and is the only figure on a US coin to face in that direction? Or, were you aware that under Lincoln’s figure are three letters that are so tiny that you can barely see them? What are they? They are the initials of the man who created the image of Lincoln used on the coin.
Also of interest is the fact that the coin has gone through countless changes over the years. In fact, I suspect that if I asked you what is on the backside of the penny, without looking many would quickly say it is the Lincoln Memorial. And, that would have been correct until 2009 when the Memorial was replaced with what is called the Union Shield.
Finally, my favorite little tidbit is the fact that the official name off this coin isn’t even “the penny”. No, according to the US Treasury, this is “the one cent piece” and the word “penny”, which is a generic term used in other parts of the world too, is nowhere to be found on either the front or the back side of the coin.
Now, why do I bring up all of these factoids about the penny? I do so because there is a great parallel I think between the penny and the Bible. What I mean is that like the penny, the Bible is a daily part of most of our lives. We affirm our love of the Bible, we say our lives are built around the teachings of the Bible, we have countless Bibles in our homes, on our iPads and smartphones and we can often recite a verse of two from memory if need be. But, generally speaking, for most of us, our overall lack of knowledge of the Bible is similar to how little we really know about the penny despite our regular interaction with both.
Why is this the case? There are many reasons I think but chief among them is likely the simple basic reality that we as Christians are much better at affirming our love for and commitment to the Bible than we are at actually spend time reading it. I don’t mean to pass judgment by this – in fact, I would name those of us who are ministers as being equally guilty.
When I think about this, I remember attending a gathering of Baptists back about 15 or so years ago. Each morning, a different nationally known Baptist would lead us in a morning devotional centered around one of the key ideas of our particular denomination. One morning, the devotional was on the centrality of scripture for Baptists. After all, one of our nicknames is “people of the book”. The speaker that morning really grabbed the crowd’s attention. He spoke with compassion. He told beautiful stories and even a few jokes carrying the group from tears in one instance to laughs in the next. All along, as he spoke so passionately about God’s word, he held his Bible in his hand. At times, he pointed it at us, at other moments he shook it and sometimes he waved it at us. But, never once did he open it up and read it to us.
So, what do we do about this? With a year in front of us, what does it look like for us to discover good practices for returning the scriptures to an appropriate central place in our lives? Well, believe it or not, I would suggest to us that our text for today provides us with some helpful thoughts.
Now this certainly may seem like a strange text, in light of how Jesus is ultimately treated by his hometown folks, but in both the good and bad of these verses, this story is quite instructive. On the one hand, the great good here is the fact that Jesus’ opportunity to teach in his hometown was centered on the Jewish commitment to reading God’s word. In Jesus’ time, the basic place for worship in most communities was the synagogue. Any community in that time period that had at least ten men who wanted to gather for worship together could form a synagogue. And, over time, this joining together evolved into a very simple and basic set of practices with the reading of scripture and an informal teaching time base on what had been read as the two main ingredients. Said another way, their basic reason for being together was for the chance to collectively share in and study God’s word.
This morning, first and foremost, I want to call us back to this basic practice and to recognizing that at the heart of a healthy faith is a commitment to reading and studying scripture. Further, I also want to suggest that there are some very basic aspects of this discipline. For one, the study of scripture needs to be something that we engage in corporately on a weekly basis and that we do our best to be involved in personally on a daily basis too. Second, the study of the scripture itself needs to be the primary way we live out this practice. Sure, good teaching is often valuable, good Christian books are incredibly important and the devotional readings that provide further context and thought can be very inspiring as well. But, ultimately, nothing should replace our simple interaction with the scriptures themselves. This is where we most clearly have the chance to hear from and interact with the voice of God. Finally, reading the scriptures should also be about reading the text in large chunks or ultimately in totality. It greatly pains and worries me that even when we do read the Bible, our technique is quite poor. Reading a verse over here or a verse over there is not the best approach. Instead, reading large sections, studying a particular book of the Bible or reading through the Old or New Testament are much better ways to treat God’s revelation to us. Again, this story of Jesus in Nazareth is rooted in the communities’ call to make central God’s word and this is something important for us to rediscover too. And, there is no better time to recommit to such behavior than as we prepare to begin a new year.
Second, though, is the reality that while those is Nazareth got it right by gathering to study scripture, they struggled mightily with another key element that is so crucial and that Jesus invited them to embrace. Notice the first thing that Jesus says after reading to them from Isaiah. His first word is “today”. In other words, having read the text, Jesus wanted to engage them in a conversation about what those very words meant for them in that place on that day. But, no one listening to Jesus wanted to deal with that question. After all, to risk the question of what does this text mean is dangerous business. For just as in our text today, it may mean opening ourselves up to allow the spirit of God to teach us something that we simply don’t want to hear about ourselves, others or the world.
But, in the spirit of Jesus from our text, reading God’s word is not an academic exercise. We don’t do it so that we can check a box, feel good about ourselves or in order to be able to point to our “religious superiority”. We do it so that we can ask the question, what does this mean for me today? How does God want to comfort, confront or challenge me through these words?
Some of you know that this past summer, I did something I had never done before – I planted a garden. I grew up on 40 acres and both mine and Ann Marie’s parents have long planted gardens. But, I had no clue as to how to go about doing it myself. I thoroughly enjoyed the process and am looking forward to year two next summer. Yet, I will tell you that it was not an easy process and often I was not sure what to do next. Along the way, I leaned heavily on two primary resources. One was other gardeners including many of you, who I pumped with questions and who gave me good advice without laughing at me too much—at least not to my face.
My other resource was straight out of the modern age as I purchased and downloaded onto my iPad a copy of the book Vegetable Gardening for Dummies. You heard me right—Vegetable Gardening for Dummies. It is actually a handy informative how-to book and I happily and heartily recommend it.
Now, how-to books are unique. I didn’t read Vegetable Gardening for Dummies so that I could discuss it over coffee with friends. And, I don’t plan to see the movie version when it comes out. I read it so that I could go out in my back yard, sometimes on the very day that I read the words, and do what it suggested. I read it so that I could put it into practice and allow its suggestions to shape the actions of my life. And this, I think, is the type of book that we have in what we know as the Bible.
After reading Isaiah, Jesus said “today” and he meant that today these words had value, significance and meaning just as it does for you and me in our own day if we dare ask the question.
So what will we do with this Holy Scripture this year? Will we commit to getting to know it again by reading it carefully and faithfully together and apart each day? And as we do, will we risk asking a simply question with each encounter—today, what does this mean for me? In this new year, I hope that we will…I hope that we will. Amen.