Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest

A sermon for Yr C, Proper 28, given at St Alban's on November 18, 2007.

Someone once called the Bible “a book of remembrance.” This is perhaps as apt a definition of Scripture as we shall find, for each time we read Scripture we recall the wondrous things that the Lord has done among those who have revered him (and among those who have not).

The remembrance of these things brings promise and reassurance to us today, translating our own ordinary experience into an astonishing story of God’s providence and grace. The Bible has the power to transform us in the here and now, and to change who we are to become. In a unique way, the Holy Scriptures lay a sacred claim upon us and our lives. Heraclites, an ancient Greek philosopher, declared that you cannot step into the same river twice. In a similar way, each reading of God’s word is ever new. Like the river, each time we step in, it is always fresh; it always has a little more to teach us.

Paradoxically, this book of remembrance, is not about the past. What we remember most as we read it are the promises of things to come. It is not surprising that God’s Word keeps challenging and renewing us. The Word is still being written in us—upon the tablet of our hearts. It has the power to become our own spiritual biography.

St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and comfort of the scripture we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). That beautiful collect, we used today picks up on the sentiment of Paul’s verse. Today, we call upon the same Lord “who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning.” We pray that we might “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”

Note that the first four don’t mean very much without the last petition. The great skeptic and atheistic philosopher Voltaire studied the scriptures, even marked and learnt them, but obviously did not inwardly digest them. The compromised German Christians Movement of the Nazi era studied the scriptures, but did not inwardly digest them.

After much study and prayer, we pray that we may inwardly digest Scripture’s message by being nourished and transformed by the sacred text. For God’s Word is not unlike the manna of the Old Testament. It is food for the journey, sustenance for the soul. Each day it is there for us once again. Everyday it is just enough, yet never exhausted. If not gathered, consumed, and inwardly digested, like the manna, its words become stale and useless to us—words in a dusty old book on a shelf, incapable of satisfying any hunger in the soul.

But if we hear Scripture, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest its message day by day, week by week, and year by year, we shall never go hungry. If you understand that, you know the real purpose of Scripture. The guiding words of the Bible will nourish you and make you strong both to know the will of God and (more importantly) to follow it. This Thanksgiving, consider how the Scriptures may be our food for the journey.

When we look carefully at this jewel of the Church’s treasury, we discover that we can read the Bible to three main ends: for information, for inspiration, and for transformation.

We first read the Bible for information. Most Bible studies, both academic and devotional, are concerned with reading the Bible for information—which is an important thing. The stories in the Bible are stories of real people, in a different time and place to be sure, yet who share many of the basic experiences of life that we do. Studying the Word of God helps us understand how God was at work in the lives of people like you and me.

Do not underestimate the value of reading for details, context, historical background, and cultural discovery. Page one of the first Book of Homilies in the Church of England reminds us, “There can be nothing either more necessary or profitable, than the knowledge of holy Scripture.”

At other times, we study the Bible primarily for inspiration. Many people memorize verses of Scripture precisely for this reason. Inspirational reading is often important during times of stress, anxiety, or hardship in life. God blesses our lives through his Word. Remember how St. Paul put it in Romans, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope(Romans 15:4). God gives us patience, comfort, and hope through the Bible. No wonder they call it God's Word. If you take the time to memorize and reflect on a passage of Scripture, it will pay off with moments of comfort and encouragement for a lifetime. It may also benefit someone else when you are able to offer a word of comfort from the Scriptures.

Perhaps the way we study the Bible least often is for transformation. The Bible is able to transform even the most hard-hearted man or woman. I have seen the most unlikely people convicted by the Spirit through the holy Scriptures and fall on their knees in repentance and faith and renewed hope before the living God. I found myself unexpectedly transformed through the reading of the Bible. When I began reading through the New Testament in High School, I was very Protestant-minded. By the time I finished the book of Revelation, I was very Catholic-minded. Somewhere in between, Scripture had laid its claim upon me, and it was only a matter of time before I became an Anglican.

According to the letter to the Hebrews, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Word of God is so powerful, not only because God himself inspired the many writers of Scripture, but also because the written Word testifies to the living and incarnate Word of God. Jesus is “the Word made flesh,” who dwelt among us.

All of the Bible ultimately points to him, and the incarnate Word, in turn is the measure for understanding all of the written Word—the Bible. Anglican bishops and archbishops gathered at Lambeth in 1930 put it this way, “As Jesus Christ is the crown, so also is he the criterion of all revelation” (Resolution 3).

When the spirit of the living Word comes to dwell within a human soul, the written Word becomes the script of conscience. When we hear the Scriptures, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, the words of God become our words. The thoughts of the Lord become our thoughts, and his will becomes our own. It is then that we are transformed, and upon his arrival,
Christ hinds a home in our hearts.

Come Holy Ghost: inspire our hearts and cleanse our thoughts, that when our Lord Jesus Christ cometh again, he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who liveth and reigned, now and for ever. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great sermon! Thank you! kgw