Our best sermons are formed when the Word of God we read reads you!
We who are learned in the ways of Scripture, whether by professional preparation or by personal devotion or both, are vulnerable to a grave danger. We are vulnerable at the point of taking control of the Word for our own designs. Pastors may do this by taking the Word as a tool of the trade by which to earn a living, while other followers of Jesus as a means of various forms of gain. How to be happy, raise children, make a million dollars, overcome depression, affirm self-esteem and much more.
Here, then, is a challenge: Let the Word work! You may have much of the Word down, but does it have you down? You own it, but does the Word own you? You routinely read the Word, but does the Word read you?
Early in Jesus’ ministry, before it really began, he was in the wilderness of Judea, fasting. Suddenly the evil one confronts and tempts him severely. You remember how the story goes. As one temptation leads to another in the wilderness, we watch and listen to two persons who knew the Scriptures well, could quote them extensively and did. Both had it down; both owned that book! One the Son of God; the other the devil. What was the difference? Jesus, Son of God, let the Word work. He was, of course, the Word of God incarnate, the Word that had come to work in and through him for others. In contrast, the devil tried and tries to work the Word.
My appeal is this: Let the Word work, and become yourself an en-fleshment of this Word of God that you are coming to know in your head so well.
One writer has noted: God’s gift of manna to nourish the People in the wilderness “worked” only in a certain way. Each day enough was given and gathered for each person/family. Manna given one day but not consumed, digested, metabolized rotted when kept over for the next day. Perhaps this suggests that all spiritual reading of the Word which is not consumed—by prayer and by works—actually causes a sort of rotting inside us. So that one walks around with a head full of fine sayings and a completely empty heart.
There is a lot of this going on. Years ago, Ron Sider noted (In his, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience) that among conservative Christians in our country, who know the Bible stories, and claim to have trusted Jesus, sexual conduct, marital happiness, neglect and abuse of spouse and children, the level of anger and animosity in their relationship with others, and the incidence of prejudice and racism basically mirrors the wider cultures of which they are part. Clearly and sadly, if the Bible issues a call to live in ways other than the culture, many Christians have said, “No!”
Ironically, there are many “Bible-believing Christians” who cherish the Bible as God’s Word, who defend it as true and essential, and would aggressively contend with others who hold “lesser” views. Yet, practically the Bible has no greater impact on them than a weather report, an Op-Ed piece, or a blog written by someone they admire. One reason for this is they really do not read the Bible much. Another reason is that when they do read the Bible they give it only superficial attention.
Commonly now, social observers call our generation post-modern and post-Christian, which means we cannot assume that anyone knows the Bible story, increasingly even in the church. This is sad, especially as it relates to the church, but this is also hopeful. Hopeful because many will be wide open to an amazing and compelling story (the Bible) that can shape their identify, inform their reason for being, and empower their living toward both. It’s a great story. If only they could see and hear it. Which is one reason for us to let the Word work. Here are two powerful ways to let the Word work in our lives, simple yet complicated in their inner and outer workings.
First, the Word cannot and will not work unless you read/hear it. Period. Not like you read most things—page after page until you have finished it. No, you read again and again until it finishes you, and then starts you all over again. This Word is a story—Genesis to Revelation—that leads us to its own fullness in a Person, Jesus, whose story is prepared for by the story that precedes it, then carries that story forward to reach, include, embrace, undo, and recreate you so that you, in turn, along with others, begin also to carry the story forward.
I know I said it was simple. I really think it is. Just read that small paragraph again. Then again. Then again. (In other words, the simple account of one way that the Word works requires you actually to put it into practice—read repeatedly!) Like the stories our grandparents told us about who we are, where we came from, the hardships that almost did our forebears in, the means and ways they/we persevered until … . Probably many of us never had grandparents tell us such a story. But here’s a basic and critical point (drawn from the story if we will allow the story to read us, as much as we read it!): “Our people,” the people of Father Abraham, both of his literal lineage and also many others who came to be grafted into his line, through Jesus, son of Abraham, Son of Adam, and Son of God—yes, our people have such a story, deep in its darkness, stunning in its light, unbelievable in its twists and turns, in its near and sudden death experiences, in its soaring hopes and plummeting despair, in its devastating endings, and then its third day new beginnings.
This, our story, accounts for much that is good, beautiful and powerful in the other human story-lines. Even those that others tell without awareness there could be other stories out there. And, this story of ours also responds to much that is evil, ugly and weak in all the other story-lines. Our story can end us, only to start us all over again, bringing forward the story richer and fuller than before. And, so it goes. Read it and then again and again, until you begin to live through a day often aware of what to do and how to do it, because it’s like you’ve been “there” before; it’s like you really are walking and participating with Another. It’s not like a story that loops again and again, it’s like fresh chapters of an ongoing story you’ve been part of for some time and are now somehow helping to write. It’s your story truly, but only because it has become his story. Or, better, it’s his story which, you realize with surprise, has become yours.
Second, as you read this story again and again, do it, practice it, act upon what it is you have been and are reading, read until it finishes and then starts you again, then let it work, let the story do its work on you, let it do a number on you. Wade into the story at some point, then lunge out deeply into the fuller story, and then consider how the story takes you with it. Rather, takes you with him—the Jesus whose story it turns out to be. You are reading not as an observer only, but as a participant. You are reading wondering how to live in the light of what and Who the story reveals.
Both practices are like two sides of the coin. You read and then repeat. Again and again. As you read it begins to read you. You see yourself in its unfolding. Seeing yourself draws you into its movements and rhythms. What does God do? How? What do the people of God do? How? What does Jesus do? In the reading the answers come, in the reading the ways and means disclose, and in the reading and re-reading we know what to do. Or, at least, we know what to try doing.
And, of course, you are not reading alone! So it is not just up to you. Your reading need not be limited by what you think are your limitations. We read and repeat, again and again, and then we enter in, crawling then toddling, then walking and running—with others in the company of Another, whose story we share together.
Read until it reads you. Work at it until the story is working you. Do it until what you are doing becomes you, deeply intuitive, the new and super normal, compelling and drawing you onward.