Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Mark of Discipleship: Read and Study the Bible

Psalm 119:1-20
Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD.  Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.  They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.  You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.  Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!  Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.  I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.  I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.  How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.  I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.   I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.  Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.  I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.  I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.  I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.  Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word.  Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.  I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me.  My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times.

When I was in seminary, studying to become a minister, I would preach in any church that would offer an invitation.  Sometimes these were very large congregations in which the pastor was on vacation, but most of the time they were small country churches with few members. 
Bethia Presbyterian Church was in either McCormick or Abbeville County South Carolina.  I was never really sure.  It was way back in the woods and hard to find.  The town where the church was located had died out years before.  The church only had worship four times a year – that was the only way the congregation could keep the presbytery from closing the church.  And the congregation – all seven members of them – felt it was important to keep the church open because of the cemetery.  The church had a large cemetery dating back to the Revolution, and that’s where granddaddy and great grandma were buried.  So no body wanted to close this seven member church.
My wife and I drove up to the church – it looked like an old barn.  Service was to start at 11 am, and at 11:01, I was in a state of panic, because I knew I’d made a mistake and that this was not the Bethia Presbyterian Church.  Those were the days before cell phones, and I didn’t know what to do.  Then at 11:02 a station wagon drove into the parking lot and out came what would turn out to be half the congregation.  One of the men walked up to a rock, picked it up, and got the key to the front door.
We went inside.  It was freezing cold – it was the middle of December.  People began putting wood into the wood stoves and lighting the fires. 
I went to one of the men and introduced myself as the preacher for the day.  He was not that interested in me, but he was more interested in my wife.  “Does your wife play the piano,” he asked.
I said she did and he said, “Good.  Well have music today.”
By this time my wife had learned to always carry music with us when we went to these churches. 
Another car drove up to the church and while we waited for them to come in, I went to the pulpit to get a feel of it.  It was one of those big pulpits with a big, big Pulpit Bible. 
When I thought no one was looking, I took a deep breath and blew onto the Bible.  A cloud of dust filled the air.
It looked like no one had used that Bible in years.

Bibles gather dust.  Not just in country churches that only meet four times a year, in our own homes we fail to open the Bible.

Psalm 119 is a long passage, and we read just a brief portion of it a few moments ago.
Verse 16 says, “I will not neglect your word.”  But let’s be honest.  We often neglect the Word of God.
Now why is that?  We know we should read and study the Word of God, but we also know this does not always happen in our daily living.
But our spiritual lives are often like our physical lives. 
In the same way that we know we are supposed to read and study the Bible, we also know we are supposed to eat right, get plenty of exercise, get our annual flu shot, and floss our teeth.
We have lots of good reasons not to do the things we are supposed to do.
And when it comes to reading the Bible, we have lots of reasons to put it off until later – or never.

Reason number 1:  The Bible is too big!
            How many times have we heard that or thought that?
            One reason we don’t read the Bible is because we are intimidated by it.  It’s such a big, big book.  How could anyone ever hope to read through it?
            We think of it as being like War and Peace.  Now that is a big book – 1,462 pages!
(place a copy of War and Peace on the pulpit)
            And admittedly, lots of people do not read War and Peace because it is such a big book.
            But is the Bible really such a large book that we ought to be afraid of opening it up?
(Place a copy of the Bible next to the War and Peace copy – do this with a couple of other best sellers)
            You know, the Bible is not such an overwhelming large book.  It is sort of average size.  Why then should we be afraid of opening it up?
            In Psalm 119, the author speaks several times of having delight in God’s law or God’s word.  In fact, it is mentioned seven times in this Psalm
            “Your word is my delight.” (verse 24)
            “I delight in your instruction.”  (verse 47)
            “I delight in your law” (verse 70).

            We should not be afraid of the Bible, or intimidated by it.  We should delight in it.  We should savor it.  We should study it and memorize it and carry the word with us throughout our lives.
            Our Old Testament lesson says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”  (verse 11)
            We need to immerse ourselves in the Word of God.  Not be afraid of it.

Another reason many people do not read the Bible is because they believe that the Bible is too confusing.  They are afraid they won’t be able to understand it.

If you want confusing, read a college algebra book.

If you want confusing, read some of those IRS instruction books.

If you want confusing there are plenty of books that we have to read, but that are difficult to read, and yet we read them anyway.

But is the Bible really that confusing?

Nehemiah 9:31:  “The Lord is a gracious and merciful God.”

Is that complicated?  It may be amazing, awesome and inspiring, but confusing?

John’s first letter:  “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”

Difficult to do sometimes, but is that difficult to understand?

Exodus 20:15: "You shall not steal.”

That’s a lot easier to understand than the tax code!

OK, I grant you that there are things in the Bible that I don’t understand, but by and large, I’m able to grasp most of it.

But when I come to parts I don’t understand, that doesn’t mean I turn my back on the whole Word of God.

I don’t always understand my wife!  But I don’t leave her.

I usually don’t understand my son.  But I don’t reject him.

St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 14:33), “God is not the author of confusion…”

            It is not a good excuse to say, “I don’t read the Bible because I don’t understand it.” 
            If you find parts of it confusing, then just start with what you can understand.

            Another reason for not reading and studying the Bible… The Bible is not relevant to my life.
            Years ago when my father died, my son and I rented a truck and drove from Miami, where we were living at the time, and took a trip to Greenville, SC, where my father had lived.  We went there to pick up some of the things that were willed to us, and we decided to take the long way home, and to drive through some of the small towns I’d lived in years ago.  My son wanted to see some of these places.
            I didn’t have a map, so as we were leaving, I took an old atlas from the bookshelf.  I knew it was going to be thrown away anyway, so I thought I’d take it and use the maps in the atlas to help find our way.  Again, this was in the old days before everyone had a GPS system in the car.
            We visited some of the smaller towns and we were then ready to get back on the Interstate and hurry back to Miami.
            I opened the Atlas.
            The maps dated back to 1960, and there was not a single Interstate on the maps – they hadn’t been built at that time!
            A lot of people look at the Bible that way.  Things have changed.  We live in a world so different from when the Bible was written – how could it possibly be relevant?  It’s like looking at an out of date atlas.
            After all, we have the Hubble Space Telescope taking pictures of incredibly distant objects, we’ve sent rovers on Mars, we are discovering new planets in other solar systems every few weeks.
            I am an amateur astronomer, and I love to see these pictures from Hubble, and every time I see one, I am reminded of how relevant the Bible is, and I think of how God’s Word says, “The heavens declare the Glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1)

            We live in an age of fear about Weapons of Mass Destruction.  And yet we read in the Bible prophecies that describe weapons much like we have today.  In Zechariah, (Zech 14:12), the author talks of war in which people’s flesh will be consumed while they are still standing – which sounds much like a nuclear attack.  In Revelation chapter 9, the prophet sees what looks like a star falling from the sky, and what he sees next is rising smoke that reaches high into the sky, and survivors who are in such pain that they long for death.
            We live in an age of terrorists who attack the innocent. 
            And in the Bible we read, (Ezek 7:25)  “When terror comes, they will seek peace, but there will be none.”

            We live in an age of anxiety and stress – and in the Bible we read (1 Pet 5:7),  “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

            The Bible is always relevant to our lives. 

Here is another reason people don’t read the Bible -- The Bible is full of contradictions.
Whenever anyone tells me this, they usually put it this way:  “Everyone knows… the Bible is full of contradictions.”
To which I always respond, “Oh really.  I didn’t know this.  What are some of these contradictions.”
That’s when the fun part begins.  Because they can’t name a single one.
Now, we have to admit that there are parts of the Bible that are poetic.  They weren’t meant to be taken literally. 
When Jesus preached, he often used parables, and not many scholars believe those stories were literally true – they were stories Jesus told to illustrate a spiritual truth.
Sometimes the Bible is referring to a different time and a different place.
In Isaiah chapter 2, the people are told, “Beat your swords into plowshares…”
But in Joel chapter 3, the people are told just the opposite – “Beat your plowshares into swords.”
Contradiction?  No.  Simply a different word for a different time and place.  In one place, the people are told to prepare for war, but in the other, the people are told to prepare for peace.
Ecclesiastes says, “there is a time of war, and there is a time of peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3:8)
There is a unity in the Bible.  It is not the contradictory literature that some people expect to find.
We read only a small portion of Psalm 119 today, but further in this passage, in verse 89, it says, that the Word of God “is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.”
In verse 160, it says that all of God’s words are true.

If we are going to be followers of Christ, if we are going to be His disciples, if we are going to commit our lives to God, then we have to listen for the Word of God.
Do you read the Bible like you should?
If not, what’s your excuse?
And do you really think your excuse would be acceptable to God?

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2013
All Rights Reserved