A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sermon (January 27) - "Been There, Done That!"

     My best friend growing up used to play a trick on his dad for his birthday.  One year, he and his mother gave him a birthday card.  He very quickly glanced at the front of it, opened it, and set it aside not even reading the entire message.
     So my friend and his mom decided to be a little sneaky.  Noticing that he didn’t really pay any attention to the nice card they gave him, they grabbed the card while he wasn’t looking and tucked it away for safe keeping.
     The next year for his birthday, they gave him this exact same birthday card.  They even put it back in the same envelope.  And guess what?  He did the same thing as the previous year.  He quickly opened it, pretended that he read every word, and set it aside never realizing that it was the exact same card they had given him a year ago.
     They did this for several years and I’m not sure if he ever recognized that he was opening the same birthday card.  Just think how much money they saved on not having to buy birthday cards!
     Maybe you might want to try this on somebody who isn’t here today. Give them the exact same birthday card each year and see if they notice.
     You know, I think we’re all kind of like my friend’s dad to some degree.  We see something but we really don’t see it.
     I read about a pastor who preaches a sermon series every year called “Summer Reruns.”  Every summer, when the attendance goes down, he preaches his most popular sermons from the previous year.  He figures that the congregation probably didn’t listen the first time so he might as well preach them again.
     I think that this is one of the biggest dangers for those of us who have been part of the church for any length of time.  We have heard these stories from the Bible so many times that we forget to hear them in new and fresh ways.  We can develop a “Been There, Done That” attitude and it can keep us from growing in a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
     This is why I am so impressed with the people of Israel from our Nehemiah scripture reading this morning.  They didn’t have a “Been There, Done That” attitude.  To help us understand this scripture reading, it’s important to know that the Jewish people had just returned from being in exile.  They are now living in Jerusalem.  They have come home.  But they are a little rusty in what it means to be God’s people in their new setting because they have been in exile.
     We are told in our scripture reading that Ezra who was a scribe and a Priest of Israel found the Book of the Law which was probably what we know today as the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament.  The people who had been without the scriptures for many years gathered at the city square and asked Ezra to read God’s Word to them.  And so Ezra stood on a wooden platform which was really probably a tower and he read God’s Word to them for several hours.
     There was such an excitement to hear these words of scripture, that we are told that the ears of all the people were attentive.  I like that word.  Attentive.  They were attentive to what was being read to them.  It was like they were hearing these words for the very first time.
     And I like it that Ezra didn’t do all of this by himself.  Ezra was very wise.  He had scholars and priests on hand to explain what was being read.  I’m glad that we’re not the only ones who need a helping hand in reading the bible.  Even God’s people who were living during biblical times needed support in understanding the meaning of the scriptures.
     Here’s a way to confirm how important it is to have other people help you understand the bible.  If you think you know everything there is to know about a passage of scripture, go to a bible study or a Sunday School class and listen to some other perspectives.  I guarantee you that there will be some new insight that will help you to see that passage in a new way.  The reason for this is because we all have our unique experiences and personal stories and this shapes the way we hear and understand the scriptures.
     In our own Methodist tradition, we have what is called the quadrilateral approach to the study and understanding of scripture.  The bible itself is the first part of the quadrilateral. The second part of the quadrilateral is tradition where we explore how the church has interpreted the scriptures for the past two thousand years.  We can see how church councils, theologians, and bible scholars have approached various issues from a biblical perspective. Even though the church hasn’t always agreed on how to interpret various passages of scripture, it is to our detriment to not be aware of this incredible resource of tradition.
     The third part of the quadrilateral is reason where we are called to use our minds in thinking through what a scripture passage is trying to tell us.  By using reason we know that when we read a verse like Matthew 5:30 where Jesus says, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” we know that it doesn’t literally mean that we are to perform an amputation.  Jesus was using the literary form of hyperbole to make an important point that living a life of holiness is extremely important.  When we read the bible, we need to be aware of the many different kinds of literary devises that the biblical authors use such as parables, proverbs, letters, stories, and poems.
     And the fourth part of the quadrilateral is experience.  How you have personally experienced God at work in your life and in the world is incredibly valuable in our approach to scripture. Here’s an example of how experience helped someone to understand familiar scriptures in a deeper way. 
     A member of a church I was serving went on a mission trip to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.  When she got back from her ten day trip in which she cared for the dying and saw people eating out of the garbage just to have something to eat, it gave her a totally new perspective on the scriptures, especially the prophetic books of the Old Testament that talk so much about not forgetting the poor and those who are in need. Every time she read those scriptures, those images from Haiti came to her mind.  That mission trip experience was transformative.  I remember when she called me on the phone after returning from Haiti.  There were deep sobs on the other end of the phone as I listened to her tell me how her trip to Haiti gave her a totally new perspective in what it means to live out her faith.
     This is why bibles studies and small groups are so important.  Not only do we get to hear other people’s experiences, we can also share our unique perspectives and together we can have a more well rounded view of the scriptures.
     By applying the quadrilateral, the scriptures become alive for us because there’s always new insights even if we have heard these same stories over and over again.  This is what helps us to not have a “Been There, Done That Attitude.”
     This focus on the time when Ezra read the scriptures to the people after they had returned from Exile gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we can become more rooted in the scriptures.  If you want to have a better understanding of the bible, here are some very practical ways to move in that direction and ways that I have found extremely helpful in my own life.
     The very first thing is to have a bible that you can understand.  It’s important to know that there are many, many translations of the Bible.  If you go into a bookstore, you’ll see shelves upon shelves of many different translations.  I personally prefer to use the New Revised Standard Version.
     It’s the same bible translation that we have in our pews and one that many bible scholars recommend.  It’s a very readable translation and one that you can also use in bible study.  Knowing that we were going to be focusing on the importance of reading the bible on this Sunday, we have several copies of the Wesleyan Study Bible in the parlor for purchase at our book table.  Many of you have this particular bible.  Not only do you get a readable translation of the scriptures, it also comes with study notes to help explain the more difficult passages of scripture.
     The second thing after making sure you have a readable bible translation is to read it.  That seems obvious but sometimes we don’t read the bible on a regular basis because we don’t know where to begin since there are 66 books in the Bible.
     There are all kinds of resources to use to help you read the bible on a daily basis but here are a few ideas I’d like to share.  We have what is called the Upper Room devotional which has a very brief daily reading for each day.  Our church provides these in our information rack in the parlor and you can pick up a copy today.  Great resource.  It always has a scripture passage to read, a short story, a closing prayer, and a closing thought for the day.
     You can also simply choose a book in the bible and read it for several days.  I like to use the Daily Office approach which offers a short Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel reading each day over a two year cycle. After two years, you will have read most of the bible.
     A third way to have a better understanding of the bible is to attend a Sunday School class, bible study, or small group. 
     A little less than a month from now, our church will begin a four week church-wide small group bible study focus during most of the Season of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday.  We did this last year and we had forty groups that met at different times and locations throughout the Season of Lent.  Many of you have told me what an incredible impact that had on your spiritual journey.  By studying the scriptures with others, it’s amazing how much we can learn together.
     And then this fourth way is to worship on a weekly basis because it’s in worship where the scriptures are read out loud and how they can help us grow in a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
     Notice what happened after Ezra read the scriptures and Nehemiah, the governor, along with the Levites explained the meaning of the scriptures with the people.  It says that the people wept like the church member who went to Haiti wept as she shared her experience with me over the phone.  The people wept and they worshipped the Lord.
     But then it says that Ezra gave this benediction and sending forth to the people, “Now go, and celebrate because this day is holy to our Lord and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
     Whenever we spend time in the scriptures at home, in a bible study, in a Sunday School class, or right here in worship, God speaks to us through his Word and we are reminded that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

     Yesterday morning, I went through my usual routine of waking up early and spending some time quietly reading scripture.  There are some days when nothing in particular jumps out at me during my reading, but yesterday, God got my attention.
     My Old Testament reading was from Isaiah, chapter 46. Still trying to get myself awake, I began reading these words. The Lord is offering this word of comfort to the people of Israel. These words seemed very fitting on my fiftieth birthday:
     “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you, I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”
     Now, I could have done without the references to old age and grey hair, but the words were very comforting and reassuring to me. “Even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you, I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”
     It was like God was saying to me, “Don’t worry about getting older. I’m the one who has been with you these first fifty years and I will continue to carry and save you.” For the next few moments there in the quiet of my study, this scripture reminded me of how God has been present in my life over all these years.  I felt a sense of peace in knowing that God will continue to carry me along the way.
     Isn’t it amazing how the scriptures can be so timely and can speak a word of reassurance to us just when we need it the most?
     Each year, the 600 clergy of our Conference gather in the spring for our annual meeting. One of the things that we do at this meeting is recognize the twenty or so clergy who are retiring that year.  At one of these sessions one year, they asked each retired clergy to go to the one of the microphones and they took turns reading a bible verse that has helped them in their ministry career.
     “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13” one pastor said.
     Without hesitating, another pastor shared his verse at a different microphone,“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. – Romans 8:17”
     Another said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, Believe in God, believe also in me. – John 14:1”
     This next one brought some laughter from the rest of the clergy.“If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. – Galatians 5:15” He obviously had served in some tough church appointments.
     One by one, we heard these experienced pastors share the scriptures that have sustained them over their many years of ministry.  Many of those scriptures, I knew quite well.  But on that day, they took on a whole new meaning for me.
     May all of us read, study, and immerse ourselves in the scriptures and the joy of the Lord will be our strength.

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