Sunday, October 16, 2005

Reading the Bible in Real Life

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on October 16, 2005.]

First Thessalonians 1:1-10

To start off this morning, I'd like to show you a few books from my personal library.

This first one is a paperback version of the New Testament in the Good News translation. It was given to me by my parents’ church in Columbus when I graduated from college. This Bible is especially important to me because this was the one I read when I first fell in love with Jesus Christ! It was on these pages that I came to learn more about Who Jesus is and the depths of His passion for me and you and everybody.

Acts was the first book of the New Testament I read in this edition. I remember being especially stirred when I read this verse, which came after an account of how the apostles, the leaders of Jesus' post-resurrection Church had been beaten for their faith in Christ:
The apostles left the Council [that had beaten them and told them to never speak in Jesus' Name again], full of joy that God had considered them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name of Jesus. [Acts 5:41, Good News version]
To this day, I can hardly read that passage without choking up. Imagine it: These followers of Jesus derived joy from having the privilege of suffering for their allegiance to Him! By contrast, I complain about being inconvenienced by people for whom Jesus died and who Jesus has called me to love.

Next book from my library: Later, through the American Bible Society, my early mentor in the Christian faith, Martha Schneider, a person I’ve talked about before, secured this hardback version of the whole Bible in that same translation.

When I went to seminary, we were each required to have a copy of the Oxford edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, no longer in print. I used this Bible throughout my seminary career and into my early years as a pastor. After it got worn out and had pretty much fallen apart, no matter how much Scotch, masking, or duct tape I put on the binding, I bought another one to replace it.

It was from this Bible that I read on the night before my family and I trekked to our very first congregation twenty-one years ago. Just before I went to bed, I read Paul’s letter to a young pastor named Timothy. In the book called First Timothy, Paul gave Timothy advice that I felt that I needed as a then-young pastor myself:
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. [First Timothy 4:11-16, Revised Standard Version]
Later, I bought this Study Bible. I still use it sometimes.

Later still, I bought this Life Application Bible. Like the others, it’s now showing its age, too, although I haven't had to resort to duct tape on the binding on it yet. I’ve had it for about seven years and still use it.

More recently, I’ve added The Message translation to my arsenal of Bibles.

Now, I’m not showing you all these different Bibles to impress you. (Chances are, you’re not impressed anyway.) My point is this: Since 1976, reading the Bible has been an almost daily part of my life.

And if you were to open most of these editions of the Bible I've laid out, you’d find in them underlines and notes. You'd find questions in the margins. If the Bible is God’s Word, as I believe it is, then what you would see in those notes and underlines and questions is the record of my ongoing dialog with God, the conversation to which God invites us on the pages of the Bible.

This morning, I freely confess that I sin and mess up every day of my life. I do things that are wrong and say things I shouldn’t say. And I think things which, if any of you were mind-readers, would cause you to want to avoid me at all costs. The Bible hasn’t made me perfect. But it has introduced me to the God Who loves imperfect people like me and is committed to helping those who daily surrender to Him. It's shown me the God Who's committed us to become all that God made us to be in the first place.

I feel like the backwoods Christian I’ve mentioned many times before. He said, “I ain’t what I wanna be and I ain’t what I’m gonna be. But thank God, I ain’t what I was.” A big reason for that is because on the Bible I've met the God Who is patient with me and keeps on loving me and counseling me even when I sin.

When we spend time reading God’s Word, it brings changes to our real lives, usually in ways we can’t readily articulate. Years ago, a London newspaper printed a letter to the editor from a disgruntled church member that said something like this: “I’ve been in worship virtually every Sunday for the past thirty years and I have recently realized that I can’t remember a single sermon I’ve heard in all that time. Therefore, I’m going to quit going to worship. It’s obviously a waste of time.” Several days later, another letter to the editor appeared. It began: “My wife has always cooked the meals in our family these past thirty years. Recently, I have realized that in scanning my memory, I can’t really remember more than a handful of specific meals she has prepared. Therefore, I’m going to quit eating.”

Daily taking the time to read God’s Word, like weekly worship, is another way God feeds us and nourishes us. I certainly don’t remember every specific conversation I’ve had with God as I’ve read and written on the pages of my Bible these past twenty-nine years. I don’t remember more than a few of them with any specificity.

But I do know that when I take the time for this daily discipline, God enters my real life that day.

I receive His counsel.

I find what displeases Him and for what I need to ask forgiveness.

I see how He provides for me and how He wants to be with me forever.

I’m encouraged in my downtimes, guided through life’s mysteries, and brought down to earth when my ego is riding high.

But it takes time spent reading and paying attention to God's Word for all of these things to show in our lives.

I'm a slow-learner across the board in life. It took me years, for example, to learn how to blow up a balloon. I’d want to give up too soon and end up with these pathetic, half-sized balloons. Or, I’d take my fingers off the tops of them and they’d fly all over the place as the air let out. You can only blow up a balloon if you steadily, bit by bit, blow air into it, making sure that you hold the tip of it together, and then, making a knot in it.

The moment you turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, you are part of God’s kingdom. But growing up in the faith, living in the confidence that God willingly gives His children, being able to face whatever life throws at us, and becoming the high-impact people of faith we’re made to be, that is a process.

There’s no such things as instant discipleship. It happens only insofar as we give God access to our wills and our lives day in and day out!

It happens through things like regular worship, regular prayer, regular service, regular giving, regularly encouraging others with the love of Christ, regularly inviting others to worship with us, and regularly reading God’s Word.

This is what Paul is talking about in our Bible lesson for this morning, composed of the opening passages of his first letter to a church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. He begins by saying how thankful he is that the Christians in this Aegean Sea-coastal city are so faithful to Jesus Christ. He writes:
For the Word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Acaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known... [And then Paul goes on to write:] For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, so that we have no need to speak about it. [First Thessalonians 1:8-9]
Do you see what happened?

The Thessalonians had daily feasted on the Word of God. It had become integrated into the very marrow of their souls. The results were predictable. People who lived miles away heard about how Jesus Christ was at the center of their lives and how His Word made a huge positive difference in how they lived and faced each day.

The Thessalonians learned something taught eighteen centuries later by the great Christian preacher John Wesley. For over fifty years, he maintained a discipline I admit hasn’t been my own. He woke up at 4:30 in the morning to read the Bible and pray. To a young lay pastor, who said that he didn’t have time for a fixed appointment of Bible reading and prayer, Wesley wrote, “...begin! Fix some time each day for prayer and Scripture. Do it: whether you like it or no. It is for your life! Else you will be a trifler all your days.” Christians who don’t make the time to read God’s Word and pray are frittering their lives away! (Take it from someone who has spent entirely too much time frittering in my own life!)

When we daily take in God’s Word, each verse becomes like one of those time-released medicine capsules that, at just the right moments, positively work within us and then bring into being things like joy, compassion, hopefulness, and deep faith. This phenomenon, in turn, is seen by others and as was true of the Thessalonians who influenced other people, we will bring God’s Word to those around us. God’s Word enters us and our lives become God’s Word for others.

Last week, we said that authentic faith leads us to read the Bible. This week, I urge you to make reading the Bible a daily part of your real life.

Wear out your Bibles!

Make notes in the margins!

Memorize verses that are meaningful to you!

Ask God to explain passages that you don’t understand.

Ask God to help you apply the things that you do understand.

Ask Him too, to set off the power for living with joy, peace, and hope that comes to all who let God’s Word act as their guide through life.

[This message and the series of which it's a part has been inspired by the work of the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.

[The quote from John Wesley is cited in Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People by Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser.]


Charlie said...

Mark: I have a dog-eared JB Phillips NT on the shelf in front of me that I bought when I was 17, when I accepted Christ. I have a number of Bibles now, but this one is so beat up because I devoured it, and as I read it day after day, I found God transforming my life.

As an adult, it has been easy to give in to excuses for not reading and praying. I was just reading Luke 10:38 this morning, and remembering that the most important thing ALWAYS is to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to what he has to say.

Thanks for the challenge.

Charlie at Another Think

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for your kind words! God bless you!