Sunday, 15 July 2012

How to read the Bible: The Immanuel Principle

Pentecost 7 year B 12 Sermon  
The Bible… is all about human life ‘with God’…
about how God…has made this ‘with’ God life… possible
and how God will achieve… this purpose.

And of course you know the name Immanuel…
is the title given to Jesus…because in him
was revealed God’s everlasting purpose …that humankind should be in every way… a dwelling place for God.

The unity of the Bible revealed in the grand mosaic
of scripture… can only be discovered when we step back
from its parts…to see the whole… centred in the person
of the Word of God made flesh… in Jesus.
Richard Foster calls this unity… the Immanuel Principle.

When we read the Bible… we find this dynamic…pulsating with God life… on almost every page…and every story…
we hear how God was with Abraham, Moses, Esther, and David…with the prophets…with Mary…with Peter James and John…with Paul and Barnabas…and Lydia and Phoebe

It’s only when we stand back…where we can view
the vast sweep of the grand mosaic…only then…can we see
how the ‘with God’ life… actually works
and how it keeps working… today as we open ourselves
to God’s Word for us…
When we step back this way… we can that the Bible creates a holy meeting place …for God’s Spirit… and our spirit.
When we view the vast mosaic of scripture…from the book of Genesis to the Revelation of St John…then we can see
that the Immanuel Principle is after all…a cosmic principle …that God used all along in creation and redemption
to guide life on earth…then…now… and in the future.

When we step back …we can see the gracious Word of God…through whom all things were made…hovering over the silent waters of creation and flowing right through history
telling us…. ‘I am with you.’

When we view the Bible this way… we can see how God’s Word...can become a river of grace…flowing into our thirsty spirits… inviting us to enter the stream
where God asks us the question…

‘will you be with me?’

And once we decide to surrender freely
once we decide to take our feet off the bottom…
then we can gradually receive that life with God…
not just for ourselves…but for the sake of the world
God so loves

And so if we decide in faith…to view the Bible as a holy meeting place for our spirit and God’s spirit…
what’s the best approach to take
what inner attitudes are appropriate for this holy activity… this… divine reading?

In his book Life with God…Richard Foster suggests
we consciously approach the Bible in three important ways.

And above all Humbly

First we read… expecting God to meet us in scripture.
We bring our life to the life with God expressed there.
Yes the Bible’s human authors were part of another era…
but there’s a Living Author… who wants to meet us there…
who wants to breathe transformation into our lives…
A living author who wants to create dialogue with us

There’s a difference between… being in the same room
with someone… and being present to them…as anyone who’s ever wilted in a doctor’s waiting room knows.

And out of love…God gives us freedom
to respond as we chose
so when we come to scripture expectantly
we open ourselves to God’s presence
so there might be some conversation…

The next attitude we must bring to reading the Bible…
is attentiveness…first and foremost…
this means reading the Bible on its own terms.
The great systematic theologian Karl Barth – invites us to ask these questions of scripture. ‘What sort of house is it
to which the Bible is a door? What sort of landscape…
spreads out before our eyes when we throw open its pages?

And when we open our Bibles
what strikes us immediately is… it’s not nice and neat! Sometimes it’s confusing…it doesn’t seem to be organised in obvious ways…we might even ask ourselves…
‘why didn’t God just give it to us straight?’

Well the straight answer to that question…
is that the Bible is a story. It’s a collection of books…
a library…
with a wide range of characters and events…
all within one grand narrative…the story that human beings are important to God…and God’s purposes are worked out through the messiness of human history. [pause]

What we can take from this is…it seems to be more important to God… for you and I to learn God’s ways in freedom …freedom to reject God… and mess things up
than it is for God… to get things done efficiently

And when we’re attentive to what’s really happening in scripture… we also learn…the condition of our hearts…
is far more important to God…than how well we play
by the rules. We learn that Jesus politically incorrect way
really offends religious authority…
because Jesus breaks the rules…and acts out of love

As first Samuel says…the Lord doesn’t see as mortals who look on outward appearance see …but looks into the heart.
If God wanted us to have a definitive field guide to faith
all written down and tidy…then I trust we’d have it…
but then it would be easy for us to ignore the living God… wouldn’t it?

And when we read the Bible attentively…we see its stories … like all stories… have settings and plots and characters and themes. Recurring places like mountains and valleys and wilderness and rivers. Places we can imagine ourselves in places we look around…

There are objects…stones, altars, scrolls, garments, and animals. We can ask ourselves… what conflicts the lead characters are facing…how well do they handle their rolls

And we can notice recurring themes in the biblical story…  God loves his creatures…human beings always seem to want what they can’t have …God is grieved and angered when humans rebel…but pursues and forgives them anyway… God’s involved in the lives… not just… of the chosen people but the lives of all people…

When we come to the Bible attentively we find endless access points for how our life can be gathered up
and changed… by life with God.

The third way we come to scripture…is beautifully expressed
by the prophet Micah… and later by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount…‘and what does God require of us… but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God…

On a dusty road north of Jerusalem… within a few years of the death of Jesus
a murderous religious zealot…is literally dropped in his tracks. He’s armed to the teeth…with letters from the high priest…
giving him authority to search the synagogues of Damascus…for followers of Jesus politically incorrect Way

One moment Saul of Tarsus is hot on their trail. The next moment he’s flat on the ground…His Latin name is Paul
and while his conversion with the risen Christ…
takes place under exceptional circumstances…
the event has universal significance
for the ways of God… with all humankind.

What does Paul’s story tell us when we read it with humility?
Three things. One

God comes searching for us.
God speaks to us personally in the context
of what God’s doing with us together as the people of God.
The manifestation of God’s presence…
can lay us out flat …figuratively if not literally.
And when we get up again…we are changed…
our direction and purpose in life…are utterly transformed

This happened to me too… moving from the glitz and the glamour of television… to the ministry of God’s Word….

Anytime we read the Bible with humility
we’re inviting a Damascus road experience.
When we read with an open mind and an open heart…
we can expect an encounter… with the living God

So how do we read the Bible humbly?  Well we can begin with a few moments of prayerful silence
we can release every concern
that isn’t rooted in the desire to experience God’s presence in our reading …and we can wait…till we’re inwardly quiet…

Next…to hear what God may be saying to us through the word…we don’t just focus on our favourite verse
but read an entire passage out loud…

Then we go back a second time to read it silently… noticing and underlining the parts that seem particularly significant

The third time we go back through the highlighted bits…
to see if a particular image or phrase or verse…
lifts itself to our attention. We might write this down
and carry it with us… to reflect on throughout our day.

This spiritual discipline of holy reading…is one way to seek
the gentle leading of God’s spirit. Our humble submission to the text… allows God to shape the outlook and posture of our hearts.
And there’s great freedom in such submission
the freedom to lay down the heavy burden…
of getting it right all the time…the weight of having to see what we think we should see. Holy reading frees us
from trying to control the Word of God…

As you read you may find yourself praying…
God pour your living water… that comes from Christ
through these words and into my dry and thirsty spirit.

This humble spiritual discipline has been called Lectio Divina for the past 2000 years…holy reading…let’s try it now.

Close your eyes… let us pray together…God in our reading …pour the living water that comes from your very Word in Christ… into our dry and thirsty spirits.  In Jesus’ name AMEN.
Let’s read aloud together from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians
Just as God chose us in Christ
before the foundation of the world…
to be holy and blameless before him in love.
God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of his will,
to the praise of his glorious grace
that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

In him we have redemption through his blood,
the forgiveness of our sins according to the rich grace he lavished on us.

With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us
the mystery of his will,
according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,
as a plan for the fullness of time
to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.

In him you also… when you heard the word of truth,
the gospel of your salvation…and believed in him…
you also were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

Now read the passage again in silence noticing what stands out for you from the passage. [Read in silence right through] We will continue our reflection as we listen to This is the air I breathe…your very Word spoken to me…

[1] I am unashamedly borrowing from Richard Foster’s book Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation, HarperCollins, 2010 and thank David Baird for giving it to me.