Sunday, February 26, 2023

Why Should a Living Man Complain?

It was a day in late September, over twenty-four centuries ago, and the trumpets blared in Jerusalem, which was beginning to finally look like a city again, now that Governor Nehemiah had finished overseeing the rebuilding of the city walls. Those trumpets set in motion a signal, from town to town to town, that called the people of the surrounding countryside into the city, gathering into the square at the Water Gate in the new city wall. Under the comforting warmth of the September sun, the governor invited an aging priest named Ezra to unfurl the scroll of God's sacred Law and read it out to the people (Nehemiah 8:1-2).

During the hours they listened, I'm sure that the stories and promises and warnings they heard couldn't help but remind them where they'd been in the last century. For a century and a half before this moment, their ancestors had been in this land, violating God's Law with utter abandon. In pursuing their great human journey, they'd been headed in precisely the wrong direction, fleeing God with gusto. Time and again, the Lord had sent them grave difficulties, bombing the wrongful path before them, all in attempts to provoke a course correction, a reversal back toward light and life and peace. And as things got more painful, one might have hoped that a wayward nation would reconsider its ways. But, by and large, it didn't. It hightailed it faster toward doomsday.

To them, God had sent a great prophet, Jeremiah, full of tears and woe. And even though Jeremiah kept his hands clean of the sin he saw relentlessly around him, he suffered intensely alongside his sinful brethren. Reflecting during the catastrophe, Jeremiah recounted his pains but considered that “it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.... Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults” (Lamentations 3:27, 30). After all, “who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (Lamentations 3:37). All the things that were happening to them had been sent by God – even the wicked cruelties of Babylon had been steered their way by him, albeit for their own eventual benefit, as a discipline. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:38). As Job said, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21). So, asked Jeremiah, “why should a living man complain – a man! – about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39).

Well, those people in his day did receive the punishment for their sins, and had no right to complain when taken captive to Babylon. Now they were back and had finally rebuilt, despite opposition from Samaritans, Arabs, and Ammonites – and even the injustice within Jerusalem itself. And so, on the east side of the city, the people streamed in through the new Water Gate to hear the Scriptures read to them. For hours, Ezra read out the commandments of God (Nehemiah 8:2-3), as the Levites translated and expounded (Nehemiah 8:7). The people heard condemnations of idolatry and immorality, of injustice and oppression. They heard the feasts and the fasts, the sacrifices and the sabbath. They heard the aggrieved love of a faithful God for his faithless nation. And they heard how important it was for “a man or a woman” who “commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD to “realize his guilt” (Numbers 5:6).

Which is exactly what happened in the square by the Water Gate that day. Confronted with the Law of God as a standard, the people listened for hours, not as if it were an abstraction unrelated to them, but they compared their history, their biography, with what they heard. They applied it to their conduct. Their applied it to their conscience. It pierced through their hearts, because they opened their hearts enough to let it in. And the word of God did its work in them. They examined their hearts and lives in its light. So “all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:9). And throughout the holidays that followed – first the Day of Atonement, then the Feast of Booths – they came back again and again to hear more, examining their own hearts day by day (Nehemiah 8:13-18).

So far this year, we've talked about how, as human beings made in God's image and likeness, we're on a journey. It's the great human journey, and it's meant to lead us to the face of God. Seeing him as he is, we'll become like him in ways we can't even begin to imagine. The beatific vision will be the fullness of eternal life, as we share God's own life as completely as a creature can – and that is heaven. But we can't get there under our natural powers, much less as those powers are handicapped by sin. We must be born again. Grace not only cleanses and regenerates us, but it installs supernatural powers like faith, hope, and love into us; and putting these into practice moves us toward our goal, under the Holy Spirit's directing guidance. And since that journey is one of relationship with God, we talked about the conversation we have with God – our side, in prayer, and his side, in his word, such as in the words of Scripture that Ezra read to the people.

A few Sundays back, we heard a bit about how righteousness and holiness are necessary if we're ever going to reach the face of God, and how that means that it isn't enough that God's grace has installed these supernatural powers into our lives. Rather, we have to cooperate with his continued grace in the use of those powers. But sin is the opposite of cooperating with God. In sin, we act against these supernatural impulses, loosening them or even casting them out of our hearts – both of which require remedies of varying strength. It's like dumping trash in your car's fuel tank, bashing the engine with a hammer, typing directions into your GPS with your eyes closed. It'll make you unsafe on the road, send you off the path you're meant to take, or risk something worse.

Jeremiah asked, “Why should a living man complain about the punishment of his sins?” (Lamentations 3:39). Why indeed should a driver complain that his suspension's getting wrecked when he goes offroading in a pockmarked minefield? The ride's very bumpiness is a warning to get back on the road, not to whine as you speed further into peril. But if not by complaining, how then should we react to God's course corrections while we're still alive and able? Hear these next words: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lamentations 3:40). In other words, assess the ground around you, recheck the map, compare it to the turns you've made, and shift into reverse to back out the way you came. For what does it mean to “test and examine our ways,” if not to reflect on our behavior and motives, as to whether they're on course, whether our lives and hearts are on course? Nine centuries ago, one commentator paraphrased this passage like this: “Examining our past and present life with great attention..., sitting in severe judgment on our action, let us return to the Lord...”1

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul saw himself as something of a latter-day Jeremiah (2 Corinthians 13:10; cf. Jeremiah 1:10). And when he writes his later letter to Corinth, the church there was in chaos, led astray after visits from pompous false teachers. For these puffed-up 'super-apostles' seemed so suave and assertive, and it made Paul's cross-shaped gentleness look like pathetic weakness in their proud eyes. So now, reports of their behavior have made Paul intensely anxious over the sins they've fallen into. Not only have Corinth's scandalous sinners still refused to repent of their licentious lifestyles (2 Corinthians 12:21), but Paul fears “that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20).

So the gloves are coming off. Paul's giving his third and final warning, and “if I come again, I will not spare” the sinners in the church there (2 Corinthians 13:2). Rather, “in dealing with you, we will live with [Christ] by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). So before Paul reaches their doorstep with the unsheathed sword of church discipline, he urges them: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are [even] in the faith” – that is, test whether there's any of Christ's presence left in them that can provide a seed of restoration (2 Corinthians 13:5). What Paul's asking of them is to sit down and reflect while he's on his way – to make a careful assessment of their acts, their lives, their relationship to the Christ they claim, so as to identify in themselves the sin that Paul has seen, and to reach a place of them seeing it as God sees it. They should react to Paul's letter as the Jews did to the Law Ezra read: they should assess themselves in its light, weep where they find them mismatched, and repent.

But this isn't the first time Paul's told the Corinthians to examine themselves, either. In his earlier letter, we read how notoriously badly they behaved when it came to Communion, to the point that their hypocrisy was literally poisoning them (1 Corinthians 11:17, 30). Bringing all this unrepented sin and vice to the altar, cramming holiness into their filthy, venomous mouths, offending the body of Jesus under the twin guises of bread and brother, they “eat and drink judgment on themselves,” to the point some of them had gotten sick or died (1 Corinthians 11:29). Paul tells them that, even before they make it to church, they ought to scrutinize their lives, their attitudes, their hearts: “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31). So “let a person examine himself, then,” and only after finding a clear conscience, Paul tells us, “eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Self-examination is a prerequisite to safe communion.

Now, at this point, we might wonder if self-examination is just for extraordinary situations – Israel confronted with generations of sin, Corinthians dropping like flies. But it's not just for the extraordinary. If we want to grow in our relationship with God, if we want to advance in the great human journey, living out this advice is a powerful tool for transformation. And Christians down through the ages have agreed. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom pointed out to his congregation that Lent – this season we're in right now – is an awesome time for making real spiritual progress. But that progress can be lost, in Lent as throughout the year, if we don't set aside time for a regular examination of our heart and life. After all, don't sailors take stock of the ship's cargo? Don't captains keep a ship's log to chart their travels day by day, and ensure that the navigation makes sense in light of their destination, so they can correct course while there's time? But if they do that, said St. John, “much more is it proper for us to follow that procedure... by examining our conscience, scrutinizing our thinking, and considering what we have done right” – (or not right!) – “on this day, and what on that day...”2

Over thirteen centuries later, there was another John – John Wesley. Barely into his twenties, his mom wrote to him: “Dear Jacky, I heartily wish you would now enter upon a serious examination of yourself...”3 He took her words to heart and carried out a regular self-examination, day after day. And after his personal revival over a decade later, he organized the small groups that would be the cornerstone of the Methodist movement, and he had these penitent bands do self-examination out loud in groups every week, answering questions like “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?”4 And in his classes, the class leader was to visit each class member once a week to help them examine “how their souls prosper.”5 The founder of our denomination was a member of just such a Methodist class near Ephrata. Our churches began, in many cases, in the form of class meetings.

So what does it look like to listen to Ezra, listen to Paul, listen to these great churchmen of generations past, and carry out a examination of our hearts and lives? A good place to begin is by thanking God, because everything we do ought to begin with thanking God for his goodness. Then, we can pray for God to help us call to mind our actions, good and bad, in the time period we aim to review. We can pray he'll give us insight into the motives by which we acted, and not just the excuses we've convinced ourselves of. We can pray God will let us really see ourselves as we actually are – the good, the bad, the ugly. And we can take a deep breath and keep calm and clear-headed, not letting ourselves get worked up or defensive, but taking a step back for a moment.6

Next, we can decide on a rubric to use. It doesn't usually help to just try to catch whatever comes to mind. We need to ask ourselves specific questions. Now, we could make up our own list of questions – a personalized standard, like John Wesley's 'scheme of self-examination,'7 or the relentless barrage that Francis de Sales put together.8 But classically, one popular rubric has been to use the Ten Commandments.9 Sit down and review your behaviors and heart attitudes with the Law of God, and you'll see why Ezra had the crowd crying!

Of course, if you keep to the letter, you can let yourself off the hook pretty easily – “Well, I never killed anybody, I haven't been stealing and committing adultery, I guess I pass.” Not so fast: Jesus digs deeper in his Sermon on the Mount, getting to the root. Another rubric that's been recommended throughout the ages is what we today like to call the 'seven deadly sins.' You know the ones – pride, anger, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth, and greed. Those are vices that beget all sorts of sins in our lives. Any one of us could examine our hearts and lives under those headings, investigating the ways we've allowed those vices to boss us around and control our attitudes and actions, or (hopefully) finding ways we've cultivated their opposite virtues.10

But, whichever rubric you pick out, use it. Hold it up next to you as you take a good, hard look in the mirror. Try to recall what you've done, what you've said, what you've nursed in your heart.11 Look at everything, but if it helps, identify one main area you struggle in – maybe impatience, maybe anger, maybe defensiveness – and prioritize that first. Francis de Sales drew an analogy with maintaining an old pocket-watch: “He who is careful of his soul ought to wind it up morning and evening... and at least once a year take it apart to examine all its dispositions, in order to repair all its defects.”12 Ignatius of Loyola suggested doing some level of examination of conscience a couple times each day, and keeping a record of your progress hour to hour, week to week.13

So how do we begin repairing defects? Well, the Law Israel heard Ezra read said: “When a man or a woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed” (Numbers 5:6-7). So that's just what they did. A little over three weeks after hearing Ezra read the Law, the Israelites got together again – and although it was October, it sure looked a lot like Lent. They all started fasting. They put dirt on their heads, just like the ashes we get on Ash Wednesday. They even dressed in sackcloth, rough and dark and depressing (Nehemiah 9:1). These are things Daniel did in Babylon, when reading Jeremiah made him realize Israel was still in the doghouse (Daniel 9:3). But what Daniel did as one man on behalf of a nation, Ezra led that nation's grandkids in doing as a generation of Daniels. Separating themselves from sin, they then confessed the sins they'd fallen into: “The offspring of Israel... stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers, and they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it, they made confession and worshipped the LORD their God” (Nehemiah 9:2-3). That is, they admitted out loud, not just being sinners in a generic way, but they named names – they verbalized to God the findings of their self-examination, submitting a real raw report on the sorry state of their souls.

Just like Nehemiah's Judah, we can, if we wish, confess our sins in a group setting. After all, James writes that in certain contexts you should “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16), and John Wesley said the bands he formed were designed to “obey that command of God” in all its intensity.14 Sometimes the early Christians practiced just such public confessions of sin. In time, it often became a more private affair between a person and his or her pastor, since Jesus told the apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:23). But regardless, confessing in public or in total privacy, these believers were confessing to God, making their own the psalm: “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin” (Psalm 38:18). With real contrition, they regretted the sins they confessed, and hoped on God's forgiveness and help. We're told to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5), and self-examination and confession are part of that effort.

And when we carry out our self-examination, when we read our lives and hearts in light of God's commands and the virtue we need if we want to be like him, we're going to find things to confess – maybe smaller things, maybe bigger things. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). So just confess it, lay it all out to God. Then ask his pardon, and commit to doing better, with the help of his grace.15 And here's the good news: he'll give it – the pardon and the grace. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). With self-examination leading to confession as a regular practice, not only can we understand ourselves better, but we can grow in righteousness, grow in virtue, “grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2), “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), “grow up in every way into... Christ” (Ephesians 4:15), and so chart our way to the very face of God. May these logbooks, this maintenance, aid us there, in Jesus' name and by his grace! Amen.

Almighty and gracious God and Father, you who forgive sin even more readily than our foolish hearts so readily commit it, we turn to you and beg for your mercy.  We plead for your light to fall on our darkened minds, calling back to our remembrance all that has led us astray.  We ask you to help us see ourselves in your truth.  We confess before you that we are sinners.  Show us exactly where we are weak and where we are strong.  Show us where we falter where we tell ourselves we fly.  Unbury the broken bones in us that yet chafe with pain.  Guide us in searching ourselves, testing and examining our conscience and heart and life, and naming before you the sins we find.  Give us hearts that hate these sins as dirty ashes, that hunger and thirst for your righteousness in us instead.  This Lent, let our fasting hunger awaken that spiritual hunger, and lead us to true repentance, true amendment of life, from what our self-examination reveals.  Confessing our sins and our vices, we know, is our one great hope to find the forgiveness and help you offer, not because you have any obligation to, but because you love us even when our love for you (or even our love for ourselves) dies out.  Teach us where we must grow next, the place we must now be stretched as, part by part, we are stretched into the pattern of the image of Christ, in whose name we plead for your mercy and your grace.  Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Open Eyes, Open Hearts

So far this year, we've been exploring this great human journey that's supposed to lead us to the face of God – to see him as he is, and so become like him as participants in his eternal life of blessedness. That beatific vision is what we're made for. But we found that this great human journey can't take off until our sin is dealt with and until we're operating under supernatural power, all of which requires us to be born again. But once we've been born again, grace installs in us supernatural dispositions called faith and hope and love. And as we put these into practice, we move toward our goal. And since our goal is union with God, our movement is all about deepening our relationship with God. So last week we talked about prayer. In Christian prayer, we make ourselves attentive to God's presence both as God and as Father, we make prayer a religious act of offering our honest inner self to him like a sacrifice, and in that context, we can process our emotions with God, thank God, make requests to God, interact with God, and just become comfortable in our Father's presence.

In all that up until now, though, we've only painted half the picture. All of that is good and important, but it can turn prayer into a bit of a monologue. Last week we said that “prayer is first and foremost about cultivating that relationship, about developing conversational familiarity with God in which it becomes easier and more natural to talk with him.” But a conversation, a relationship, takes a dialogue. Have you ever tried talking to someone who monopolizes the conversation, who won't let you get a word in edgewise?  Too often, we are that person toward God as we pray:  going on and on without leaving space for God's replies. So how do we do better?  How do we listen in prayer with an open heart?

The first thing that helps, as we become attentive to God's presence, is to become aware of God as a lovingly active listener – the fact that, whenever we're paying attention to him, he's already paying attention to us. What we say already has his ear, as children have their Father's ear. But does he have ours, even when he seems slow to speak? It takes vulnerability to open ourselves to God and then just... wait. It's uncomfortable, maintaining a stretch position of listening. It takes patience that we often don't muster. But then, in our silence, we begin to hear. I always struggled a lot with this, but one book on prayer I've been reading explains it so much better than I could ever hope to, so bear with me as I just quote them:

The response may come in different ways. … His response may come in the form of some insight which we may or may not be able to put into words. Sometimes it is simply a peace that rises up in our hearts, or we find that an image comes to us and possibly an interpretation of how that image applies to us. Other times we start to see a situation or a person differently, from God's perspective. … When it comes to our personal calling, words of love meant for us alone, direction for specific situations, or guiding us in the choice of two goods, his voice can be so quiet that we cannot hear it. That is to say, we will hear his voice only when we are ready to hear it, when we have already aligned our freedom with his will.1

Now, with God's voice being so quiet, there comes a danger. And the danger is that, willingly or unwillingly, we can fabricate the other side of the conversation. We can imagine God too differently from how he really is, we can mistake other voices for his, we can distort what he's saying to us by filtering it through the wrong ideas. If we're to invest in a relationship with God, then we've got to match his very quiet voice to what he's already shouted to the world – we've got to have an ear formed by God's word.2 So what's God shouted to the world?

God has shouted to the world his Word, and his Word is none other than Jesus Christ, the divine person. For we know that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). As the Word of God, he made everything that is and holds it all together (John 1:3). Because he holds it together, the Word is “the true light which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9), so that to an extent, even the unbeliever in deepest darkness has “the work of the law written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:15), so that at times they “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14). That's because God has written his Word all over the underside of creation, leaving a natural law to reveal himself.

But more important than even that, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). For “in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son..., through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:3), “and the name by which he is called is: The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). And so this Word of God “was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels..., taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). Unless our first reaction when we hear the phrase 'word of God' is to think of Jesus himself as the Word of God – capital W and all – then we have missed the point. Because the Word of God is, first and foremost, this divine person, this Jesus Christ. Jesus is himself the shout of God that makes the world, holds the world, saves the world. He, and nothing else, is God's perfect self-revelation.

But after he was taken up in glory, we're told that the apostles he appointed “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). The 'word of God' there is the content of what they preached. And through their preaching, first “Samaria had received the word of God” (Acts 8:14), and then “the Gentiles also had received the word of God” (Acts 11:1). Over and over again, “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). So, when the proconsul Sergius Paulus “sought to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:7), was he out of luck? No. Did he reach for a book? Also no. He called on apostles and listened to them, because what they preached to him was the word of God. Through them and those who worked with them, the word of God was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). It was this “living and abiding word of God” whereby “you have been born again,” says Peter (1 Peter 1:23). And because this preaching passed from mouth to ear to mouth to ear, Paul rejoiced that, even when he was chained up like a criminal, “the word of God is not bound!” (2 Timothy 2:9).

So the personal Word of God had come to the prophets and spoken to them, and therefore – as Peter explains – “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Then, when the Word of God took on flesh, he appointed these apostles and poured out on them the same Holy Spirit, and they too spoke as the Spirit carried them along. So far, so good. But some of those prophets, and some of these apostles, took the word of God they were speaking, and they wrote it down. And what they left behind them, people called 'scriptures' – which, from the Latin scriptura, just means 'writings.' Later on, through a process we won't get into this morning, these scriptures got conveniently collected into a single set of books, sometimes even between a single set of covers. The Greek word for 'books,' in the plural, is biblia – so, in English, “the holy books” becomes “the Holy Bible.”

And this Holy Bible is God truly shouting his love to our world – or, as Paul puts it, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). For the Bible to be God's speech implies that the message God wants to teach us is inerrant. “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6). “The word of the LORD is upright” (Psalm 33:4). “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5). For just such a reason, Jesus announced that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). One follower of the apostles summed this up by saying: “The Holy Scriptures... are true and inspired by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing contrary to justice or truth has been written in them.”3

All that is totally true. At the same time, it's also true that the Bible didn't descend on a sunbeam, a message in one heavenly language that transcends all time and all space. The Holy Scriptures arose from the Holy Spirit carrying along real people. God chose to harness the gifts of a whole bunch of writers in all their specific contexts, and he let them bring their personalities and strengths and even weaknesses to the effort.4 So they write in their own languages, Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. Sometimes they use a rhyme scheme or a pun that's hard to pick up on in our English translations. Some of them wrote in high-flying words of impressive eloquence; others of them ain't using no perfect grammar – and that's okay. Some wrote by their own hand, others dictated to a scribe, some had co-authors, and some might've even outsourced the wording to a secretary and then approved the final result. They assume background information they expect their first hearers to remember. They use customs and conventions familiar to them, without worrying about us people two thousand years later. The Bible is the word of God as written down, and the flesh it's incarnated in is all these particularities – but just as with Jesus, it's these enfleshed particularities that let it be seen and touched by us.

When we want to understand the Bible, then, first we have to read it literally. But that's not the same as reading it literalistically. Reading everything in it like a newspaper report would be literalistic, and often, that's what we do. But to read it literally is just to read it 'according to the letter' – i.e., what the words actually say and mean, according to their genre and their context and their grammar and their syntax and their figures of speech. If it uses metaphors or idioms, read those for what they are. If you come across a sentence like “It's raining cats and dogs,” literalistic reading makes you call the vet; literal reading makes you grab an umbrella.

First, there's the literary context. When you read a line or a verse, what's right around it? What kind of passage is it in? If it's a proverb, read it like a proverb. If it's a parable, read it like a parable. If it's a scene or episode, read it like that, as a story. Then, there's not just the immediate passage, but the whole book. What genre is it? If it's a biography like the Gospel of Matthew, read it as a biography. If it's a letter like Romans, read it like you read a letter. If it's an apocalypse like Revelation, we'd better figure out how we're supposed to read apocalypses. And how's the book put together? For instance, Matthew is arranged around five big teaching sessions (just like there are five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy), and one teaching session, the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus preaching from a mountain, just like Moses on Mt. Sinai. Once you see how it's put together, you can read each part in light of the rest. Just like it's hard to figure out a movie if you enter the theater an hour after it starts, so it's hard to figure out a book starting from the middle. Then, not only is there the whole book, but there's the whole Bible. The Scriptures are meant to hang together as one immense story that describes the truth of the universe.5 And so the whole Bible makes sense together. You'll get the most out of watching a movie these days if you've seen its prequels. The same's true of a Bible book's prequels.  (And then also its sequels, after which you can 're-watch' the earlier book with added perspective again, just like the best movies.)

That brings us to the historical context. If it wasn't written this morning right here in the USA, don't read it like it was. As you look at a line or a verse, which are part of a passage and a book, when does it fit in that immense story? Which covenant does it belong to? Was it written before, during, or after the exile? Where was it written – Israel, Judah, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome? Is the author a king or a priest or a prophet or a sage or a fisherman or a doctor or a tentmaker? Where'd the Holy Spirit find this person? And who was in the human author's mind as their first audience? Were they Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, rural or urban, well-behaved or badly behaved?

That's an awful lot of questions, I know. That's why we've got a little church library. But while all this may sound complicated, it doesn't mean that you're left clueless when you sit down with your Bible in the morning. After all, Timothy was “from childhood... acquainted with the sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:15). And while Timothy had to keep reading, keep learning, keep clarifying what he maybe didn't understand at first, even a child can feel the breath of God on the sacred page, and get some part of its message, whether a little or a lot.

So this literal sense of Scripture – metaphors and figures and all – is foundational. But as Paul looked to the Law, he contrasted its 'letter' and its 'spirit' (Romans 2:29). What the words say about things is the literal sense, but the spiritual sense shows us what the things mean, in all God's cleverness. Eventually, Christians divided the spiritual sense into three senses, for a total of four.6 I want so badly to get into that right now, but we don't have time, so we'll circle back to the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of Scripture in a couple months.

Alright, but as we read Scripture or hear it taught, how do we guard against making stuff up? How can we be sure we're reading rightly? Because Scripture itself tells us that people will read it badly and teach it badly. “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). There will “arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). And many of those twisted speakers would defend their bad ideas by twisting Scripture. Less than two centuries after Jesus' ministry, we hear Christians complaining how false teachers were sneakily twisting Scripture's meaning “by inventing different interpretations from ours. … They rely on passages which they've put together in a false context, or fastened on because of their ambiguity.”7

Up until recently, the average Christian didn't carry a Bible around, or have one at home. They heard it read at church, but some Christians barely had even that – and yet they could still believe rightly. We're told how “many barbarian peoples who believe in Christ... possess salvation, written without paper or ink by the Spirit in their hearts, diligently observing the ancient tradition. … Those who've believed this faith without letters are barbarians in regard to our language, but are most wise (because of the faith) as to thinking, customs, and way of life; and they please God as they live in complete justice, chastity, and wisdom.”8 So without having Bibles, they lived by God's word, even knowing it enough to reject false teachers out of hand. But how can that be?

It's because the apostles didn't only leave behind written words – which, by their own admission, could never be the full picture, since “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). They also left behind people with living memories and living voices.9 Think about it: if you time-traveled back to the year the temple fell, most of the apostles are dead, much of the New Testament has been written, but you can shake hands with Christians who've spent hours listening to Paul's sermons, they've watched him go about his work, they've asked him questions face-to-face. And some of these people are the people to whom Paul handed over the keys to this or that church before he died; and they, in turn, will help the next generation understand the other Scriptures rightly, and so on down the line.10 Got questions about 1 Corinthians? Go to Corinth and ask the leaders and teachers there. Nobody was ever left to read the Bible all on his or her lonesome.

Nor were we ever supposed to. The Bible isn't just anybody's book; it's the Church's Book.11 The word of God is for the people of God, as we proclaim after reading from it every Sunday. The Bible was written by people who belong to the Church, written for the sake of the Church, finds its most proper usage within the Church's worship, and is meant to be read with the Church as its fullest context – so there's not just the literary context and the historical context, but also the ecclesial context. And the Church herself is a Bible-reader who, as a single living body, is filled with the same Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture. Gifted by that Spirit, the Church strives to think always with the mind of Christ as she reads; and as she does, she continues to speak the word of God, the same as ever, uttering it in every generation as her sacred tradition. And that is how, as Paul writes, “the church of the living God” was, is, and shall be “a pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). 

We're out of time to explore how the Church speaks the word of God over two thousand years to today. But suffice it to say that trying to unlock the Bible for yourself in a vacuum is a recipe for reading it wrong. “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). Reading any of the Bible as God's isolated word, forgetting all its contexts, has never been the hallmark of true disciples.

Okay, last question: what role should God's word, in all its forms, play in our lives? To that, King Jehoshaphat answers: “Inquire first for the word of the LORD (1 Kings 22:5). True disciples prioritize God's word, and in practice, for us that means sitting down with an open Bible and exploring with guidance. King David declared that God's word was “more to be desired... than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). True disciples not only prioritize God's word, they prize it: they want to gobble it up and savor it slowly, pile it high and haul it to the bank. They want as much of it as they can get, to explore it and enjoy it to the full. David goes on: “Moreover, by them” – God's words, that is – “is your servant warned, and in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:11). Paul echoes him by saying that God's word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). How, then, do true disciples approach God's word?  They prioritize it, they prize it, and they put it to work. For they find it incredibly versatile, packed with all they need to know for salvation, all they need to steer clear of spiritual dangers, all they need to grow in wisdom, so that every kind of triumph comes within their reach. That's what true disciples do.

And, yes, to get at God's word, to get all of God's word, to get all we can out of all of God's word, is going to take plenty of effort – it's a deep dive, this backbreaking mental labor of unearthing pearls of such great price. But that shouldn't surprise us, since the same is true of prayer. So let us read with open eyes, hear with open ears, ponder with an open heart. It may be challenging... but it's a challenge with more than enough 'great reward' for us all. Amen.