Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
Print is dead. This has been a doom saying oracle now for about 30 years. First it was thought that the rise of TV followed by cable and VCRs would completely render the printed word obsolete. Now it is the internet that is going to kill the printed word. Which is really kind of ridiculous, because if the words are on a screen or on paper, it is still print. It is true that how we read is changing. Most people, especially of my generation, read news online not in printed papers. Bookstores are also struggling because more and more books are being sold through online retailers like amazon or as files that can be read on eReaders. In the past several years the big rallying cry has been that “screens” are threatening reading. The thought is that today’s kids would rather spend time playing video games or messing with their phones than read. There is a huge push for parents to limit the amount of “screen time” their kids have. Computers, video games, and smart phones are not killing reading. In fact it is the opposite. Young adult is the title given to books that are specifically targeted at teenagers. In 1997 there were 3,000 young adult books published. In 2009 there were 30,000 young adult books published and a total sales in excess of $3 billion. The fact that many of last year’s hit movies such as the Hunger Games, Divergent, and the Fault in our Stars are all adaptations of books targeted at teenagers shows that the popularity of books is continuing to grow.
We, and young people especially, are reading more than ever before. What is so baffling then is why the most bought and given book is one of the least read. Figuring out how many bibles are sold each year is a bit hard because there are so many different translations and publishers, but the best estimates are that 100 million bibles are sold or given away each year. To put that in perspective, the bestselling book of 2014 was A Fault in Our Stars which sold 1.8 million copies. The vast majority, 88%, of American households have a bible. Yet biblical literacy, the knowledge of what is in the bible, is dropping. There is a whole list of statistics that could be given to show this. Every year the Barna Research group creates a state of the Bible report based off of their findings, and in 2014 they reported that only about a third of Americans read the bible once a week, and fourth of us never read the bible. This has led the Barna research group to continue to conclude that “Americans love the Bible, but they do not read it.”
Maybe it goes without saying, but I have a great love of the Bible. John Wesley said he is a man of one book, and I agree with that sentiment. Now I read a decent amount but only one book has informed, shaped, and changed my life to a huge degree. The Bible is the only book that I have read that I would consider life changing. I truly am bewildered why the bible is not read, even among Christians. The way we consume media shows that we have a deep desire for good stories in our culture. We have already stated how book sales are continuing to thrive, and in television there has been a resurgence in story telling heavy shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Downton Abby. It really seems that today people crave compelling story telling more than before. I know I am biased, but I firmly believe that the Bible contains the greatest story ever told. From Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, the Bible has a single narrative that runs throughout it. The story of the bible is on a scale so epic that it dwarves the Lord of the Rings. It is about a love so passionate that Nicholas Sparks would struggle to define it with words. What is truly remarkable is that this grand story exist. The bible was written over a period of 1,500 years. It was written in three languages by at least 40 authors. The bible contains multiple literary genres, and the original audiences of the books are as diverse as the individual books themselves. Despite all of this diversity, despite the staggering amount of voices present within the Bible, it present a common story throughout its pages. It tells THE story, the story of God, a lost creation, and how far God was willing to go to get it back.
If you are not familiar with this story, then this will just be a brief paraphrase. It does not really do the grand story justice. Unfortunately, I have to leave out a lot of the details, but it is all in the Bible. Once upon a time or if you prefer, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God created because that is part of who God is. God is a creator. Another fundamental part of who God is, is that God is loving. So out of this love, God created people. He created us. Humanity was designed and created to be in a loving relationship with God. God provided the first of us with everything they needed, and the first people lived in perfect relationship with God. Yet, for it to be true love, there had to be a choice. Compelled love is not true love, so the first people were given the choice to be in relationship with God or not. The choice was simple all they had to do was choose to do what God said and not eat the fruit of a single tree. Humanity made its choice. The choice was to rebel, to instead of being in relationship with God the choice was to be like a god. Humanity fell, the curse of sin was introduced into the world, and the loving relationship that we created to have with our Creator was shattered. It broke God’s heart.
Yet God had a plan. He called a group of people to be his people. When they were in distress God delivered them, he led them, and showed them his signs and wonders. God made a covenant with them. He would be their God and they would be his people. The covenant came with the law, which laid forth a way to live in order to overcome the curse of a sin. The law gave a way of blessing, a way of life, a way to be reunited with God in loving relationship, the way we were created to be. A loving relationship is only loving, if there is a choice. The chosen people chose to rebel. They chose not to follow God’s law and they chose to break the covenant by worshiping false idols.
God sent prophets. Through these prophets God performed wonders and miracles. Through these prophets God spoke, warning the people to turn back to him, to renew the covenant, and reenter the loving relationship they were created for. The people were stiff necked and obstinate though and they continued to rebel against God. God, like a stern father, punished them for their disobedience. God hoped discipline would help turn the people’s hearts back to him. It did not work, God sent more prophets, and the people chose to listen. Along with being a loving creator, God is also just. God had treated the chosen people more than fair, continually forgiving all of the ways they had wronged Him. Finally, he passed judgment on the people, allowing them to suffer in exile. Even then though, because God is loving He promised through the prophets that He would the exile, that he would restore the people back to their land. God promised that even though the people had time and time again broken their promise, God would honor His. God promised he would still be there God, and still be in loving relationship with them. Through the prophets, God did more than just promise restoration to their homeland, God promised something more. He promised restoration to the way the world was meant to be. He promised to defeat sin once and for all and restore the broken relationship we were created for.
God fulfilled this promise in Jesus. Jesus was just like us and yet he was also just like God. In Jesus God came and lived among and with the people he created. Jesus fulfilled the covenant that God had made with the chosen people. Jesus followed all of the laws perfectly. He lived the perfect life. He lived in a restored loving relationship with God, and they (we) killed him for it. Yet this was also part of God’s plan. Jesus is the only person who had ever lived who did not break the covenant, he was the only person who lived in a full loving relationship with God, and he was the only person who did not deserve to be punished for sin, for rebelling against God. Despite that, he took the punishment on behalf of others. He suffered, so that those who believe and accept him as their substitute will no longer be under the curse of sin. Jesus was killed to be our sacrifice that reunites us with God.
This was the beginning of a new age, an age where the curse of sin while still present, no longer had complete control of the world. Now those who had accepted Jesus as their savior were free, they had begun being reconciled to God and had entered back into a loving relationship with him. A new covenant was created, and this time the covenant was open to all who believed, not just the chosen people. God poured out his Holy Spirit on the people who accepted this new covenant, so that they could join with God to transform the world. Through the empowering of the Spirit they had spiritual gifts and spiritual fruits that made them more like the savior they followed. They experienced God’s love, and then shared that love with the world so that the curse of sin and it’s vile consequences will continue to diminish.
The story is not yet over, but we know how it will end. One day this age will end, and Jesus will return. When Jesus returns there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Those who are in a loving relationship with God will dwell there forever, and God the creator of everything will have restored creation to how it was supposed to be. We, his creations, are in a loving relationship with him, not because we have to be, but because we have chosen to be. That is the story that the bible tells, that is the greatest story ever told.
Nathaniel Greene was one of the most accomplished American generals in the American Revolution. What is most notable about this fact is before the revolution, he was not a solider, he had not been on a battlefield, or attended a military academy. During the 1700s there was a firm belief, that anything could be learned and mastered through the reading of books, and that is exactly what Greene did. He read about how to be a general, then by simply applying what he read he became an extremely successful general. While we may not value books to that degree today, there is still a lot of truth to how powerful they are. This is especially true to our faith. Our faith is all about being in a loving relationship with God our Creator, made possible through Jesus our Savior, and then applied in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we want our faith to impact the story of our life in any meaningful way then we MUST know God’s story as told in the Bible. If want we want to be serious about following Jesus, then we have to know what Jesus did and what he said we should do. We can only do that if we read the bible. If we want to be in a loving relationship with God, then like any relationship we have to know each other. God already knows, but we have to know God and the only way to know God’s character is by reading the Bible. The bible truly is the source of everything we know about God.
As we reclaim lent this year, we are going to focus on spiritual disciplines. Each Sunday morning we will highlight a different discipline, and focus on how we can built it into our daily lives. Spiritual disciplines will enrich our faith, deepen our discipleship, and help us love God more. Spiritual disciplines are how we train to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Just like exercises the more regular we are, the more effective they are. There are many spiritual disciplines we can be mindful about adding to our lives during lent. Lent is not just about fasting and giving things up, lent is about being intentional about turning sin and turning to following God.
As you have probably guessed, this week the discipline is bible study. Like John Wesley, we need to be people of one book. We need to read and know the Bible. There are some common complaints to reading the bible. One is that it is confusing or hard to understand. While I can appreciate people feeling that, that is not an insurmountable problem. There are so many translations and even paraphrases of the bible that finding one that uses language you are comfortable with is doable. When it comes to unusual names and places, many study bible come with notes that help fill in those missing details quite nicely. The single biggest reason people give for not reading the bible when surveyed is that they just do not have the time. Again, I can appreciate feeling crunched for time, but if we are being honest that is an excuse not a reason. We make time for what is important to us. The entirety of the Bible has a whole lot less words (over 300,000 less) than the Harry Potter series, yet millions of people have read those books repeatedly. Thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, marathon watching an entire series of TV in a matter of days is increasingly common. If we honestly look at how we love our lives we know that we have time, we just need to make time.
We are blessed to have innumerable resources available to us. If you do not know where to start, there are all kinds of bible reading guides. In fact, we printed one specifically geared to Lent in the February Newsletter that you can use to get started. If you seem to never have a bible handy when you think about it, but you have a smart phone then you can download a bible app that gives you access to dozens of translations. If because of your job or living situation, reading is not feasible for you then there are audio bibles as well, including free ones accessible through a computer. One of the huge advantages we have of living in a country with the religious freedom we do, is that we have every resource imaginable to us to make the bible accessible and easier to understand, all we need to do is open the book.
On this subject of the discipline of study John Wesley wrote “O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: What is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days.” To paraphrase that out of 18th century English, Wesley is saying read your bible. Even if you do not feel like it, even if it is hard to understand, read your bible. In doing so, you will discover that the more time we spend with the bible the more we understand it. We discover that what once felt like a chore, becomes an essential part of our life that we cannot live without. More importantly, we discover that reading the bible connects us to God like nothing else. All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Throughout it we learn about God’s love story with creation, and we begin to discover what part we play in that story. May you be a person of one book. Whether you read the bible daily already or you never read the bible, may your love for that book increase. May God teach you through it and may God reveal himself through it. May you discover how the story of you, of your life, connect to God’s story-the greatest story ever told.