October 25, 2009

Know It By Heart

How many of you read the instructions when putting something that’s “some assembly required” together? Be honest now. How many of you just take everything out of the box and get started? How many of you have done that and ended up messing something up along the way? A few months ago I was putting together a TV stand and like I usually do, I pulled out the directions and had them open as I began to work. That’s right, I generally do try and read the instructions when undertaking a project like that. Unfortunately, my downfall is that I don’t read them very closely. I had to go back and undo part of what I had put together about four different times because I kept finding mistakes I’d made. Finally I figured out that I had inadvertently missed an entire two pages of instructions. No wonder I was having so many problems. Life is kind of like that, you know. We want to live a good and righteous life. We want to be kind, compassionate, loving people who look out for others and are well thought of by those around us. The problem, though, is that we default to the opposite of this at nearly every turn. We need a clear set of instructions in order to keep us on track. Thankfully, as believers, we have this in the word of God. Yet just like we are not going to put together a TV stand, a bookshelf, a bicycle, or anything else unless we pay close attention to the instructions, we are not going to stay on the path of righteousness unless we pay close attention to life’s instruction book.

Speaking of that, have you ever heard of the popular series of devotional books with the general title Life’s Little Instruction Book? The idea here is a common one: the Bible is an instruction book for life. It gives us direction on how we should be living our lives in order to become the people God made us to be. Yet the reality is that the Bible is far, far more than this. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to humanity. Aside from His reaching directly into time and space, as He is described as doing in the Scriptures, we would have no way of knowing anything about God apart from the Bible. Yet if we need to know God in order to live a life of righteousness and we have to know the Word in order to know God, why is biblical illiteracy a growing trend in our culture? Biblical references which used to be universally understood in this country more and more sail right over the top of the heads of many people. I had a conversation with some people a few months ago and made a reference to Moses and they stared at me blankly because they didn’t know who Moses was.

Now, many of you might be thinking at this point: but I know my Bible, Preacher. I know all those stories. I can tell some of them to you even better than the original version. Why are we talking about this? Well, I can tell you that I have thought those same things before. I know most of the stories in my Bible forwards and backwards. But if I don’t let them affect my life can I really say that I know them? If we’ve read Matthew 6:25-34 and Philippians 4:6-7 and still worry do we really know those passages? If we’ve done a detailed study of the blessings and curses for obedience to God’s word in Deuteronomy and yet still transgress the Word has our study profited us anything? If we’ve heard dozens of sermons on the fact that God knows what’s in our hearts and yet still try to justify selfish behavior with Him, did we learn anything? The life we were created for is a life of righteousness—right relationships—with God and with others. And we can only have that when we know the Word and the God behind the word. In other words: a righteous life comes from knowing God’s word. And this means more than reading the stories such that we can regurgitate plot, characters, and setting to anyone who asks. This means taking time to really think about what they mean and how they apply to our lives. With this in mind, the final spiritual discipline we are going to talk about this month is the discipline of meditation on Scripture. In this discipline of engagement we take time to reflect deeply on the meaning, purpose, and application of a passage of Scripture. This practice opens our hearts more to interact with the God behind the Word and creates space for Him to work in our hearts. It also puts us in a place where we are more ready to respond obediently to what we read in Scripture, letting our lives be more impacted through the encounter. Here we can more truly reflect a deep, heart-centered knowledge of God’s word. All us this in turn will develop the character of righteousness more deeply into our lives, for a righteous life comes from knowing God’s word.

Well, turning to the Word itself (for it would seem a bit odd to not have this sermon centered deeply there), there are few passages in Scripture that are more helpful in encouraging us to pursue a deep knowledge of the Word than Psalm 119. This is one of the most exquisite reflections on the majesty of the Word of God ever written. It’s one of my favorite passages of Scripture and probably one we should read through at least every couple of months just to regularly remind ourselves of how important and powerful God’s word is. And while I would love to take us through it from start to finish in glorious detail, we are going to focus on a single of its 23 stanzas this morning: verses 9-16. Open your Bibles to these incredible words if you would and let’s take a look at them together. “How can [people] keep [their] way pure? By keeping Your word. I have sought You with all my heart; don’t let me wander from Your commands. I have treasured Your word in my heart so that I may not sin against You. Lord, may You be praised; teach me Your statutes. With my lips I proclaim all the judgments from Your mouth. I rejoice in the way revealed by Your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts and think about Your ways. I will delight in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word.” The clear picture that emerges right up front from these words is that a righteous life comes from knowing God’s word.

Now, it’s not often that I give a lot of attention to the literary structure of a passage of Scripture for a Sunday morning, but this morning is an exception. These eight verses form what is called a chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device in which repetition is used at opposing ends of a passage in order to simply make the words more memorable, to actually draw the readers’ attention to a specific point, or to aid in its interpretation. The present chiasm makes use of the last item in that list. In other words, these words were written in such a way that the way the author likely wanted them interpreted is hidden in the words themselves. If you read these words closely, you’ll notice that the basic idea in v. 9 is picked up again in v. 16, the idea of v. 10 in v. 15, v. 11 in v. 14, and v. 12 in v. 13. And these ideas spell out what happens in our lives when we really incorporate the spiritual discipline of meditation on Scripture. As we have already talked about, our desire for achieving and maintaining a life of righteousness demands that we keep God’s word. We see this clearly spelled out in vv. 9 and 16. The author first affirms this fact and lastly commits himself to doing this very thing.

Well, in order to keep God’s word we have to know it—indeed, a righteous life comes from knowing God’s word—which means taking time to meditate on it so that we will really, truly know it with all our hearts. In vv. 10 and 15 we see the psalmist proclaiming his desire to do this while at the same time asking for God’s help in accomplishing it. Specifically in v. 15 the psalmist says: “I will meditate on Your precepts.” “Precepts” is just a synonym for God’s word, but it’s the word “meditate” there that probably causes more people trouble. Perhaps you’ve seen advertisements for classes in meditation—some of you may have even gone to one of these. With the rapidly increasing popularity of New Age and Eastern religious movements in this country, the practice of meditation is growing increasingly popular. There are churches today that offer classes in meditation. A question many believers ask is whether or not there’s any difference between New Age/Eastern and Christian meditation. This is a good and important question because if we are talking about meditating on Scripture then we need to know how to do it in ways that will be helpful for our spiritual growth, not harmful. The truth is that there is an enormous difference between the two and this difference can be traced back to the ways each different religion views the world and the purpose of people. With many of the New Age religions, the goal of humanity is to connect fully with the divine consciousness inside of all of us. At first this sounds like it might be saying the same thing as Christianity but with a different vocabulary. This is why, by the way, many believers who don’t know their Bibles or Christian theology well have fallen prey to New Age lies when heard from people like Oprah. Now hold on, don’t we want to connect deeply with God who dwells in us in the person of the Holy Spirit? The difference here is that the New Age religions believe that we do this by realizing the divine potential in all of us to be little-g gods. We can take part with the divine consciousness because we are in fact divine. New Age meditation then is about emptying our minds of everything so that we can really know this “truth.” With Eastern religions like Buddhism the goal is to remove all desires from ourselves so that we can thus be free from pain. The idea is that if we aren’t thinking about anything, then we aren’t wanting anything which means we’ll never be hurt. But this is a coward’s way out of life. It’s like not getting out of bed in the morning because we are afraid of what the day holds. If we do that for long our bodies will die…if we practice Eastern religions very long our spirits will eventually die. Eastern meditation then is about emptying our minds so that we can accomplish this. As Christians we want to free ourselves from evil desires, but we must replace them with desires for righteousness and the things of God or else we haven’t really accomplished anything. With all this in mind, the goal of our meditation is to empty our minds of all that is not God in order to fill them with the Word of God under the guidance of the Spirit of God in order that He might help us become fully and righteously human, not divine. After all, a righteous life comes from knowing God’s word.

The third part of the chiasm speaks to the results of this meditation and keeping the Word of God. In verses 11 and 14 the psalmist talks about treasuring God’s word in his heart and rejoicing in the way of life revealed by God’s word. When we have developed the practice of meditating on God’s word in our lives, we will naturally start to understand more deeply the incredible riches available to us in kingdom life. The Bible is clear that such an understanding will lead to rejoicing in our lives. And how could it not? It puts us in a place of becoming more fully who God designed us to be and we will be able to experience the life and joy of fulfilling our purpose in life. The other thing this deeper understanding—which naturally plays itself out in our lives—accomplishes is spelled out in the second half of v. 11: we won’t sin as much. The Word of God, properly understood, is the best antidote to sin in the world. Well, sinning less means being connected to God more which will increase our desire for His word more which will lead to our sinning even less, deepening further our love for the word. Will we still have setbacks and stumbles? Sure we will. But the deeper our love and understanding of the word grows, the more quickly we will turn back to God in these times, the more easily we will get past them and on to really living once again. I hope this fact is becoming increasingly clear: a righteous life comes from knowing God’s word.

The final piece here is found at the center of the chiasm: “Lord, may You be praised; teach me Your statutes. With my lips I proclaim all the judgments from Your mouth.” As we grow in this cycle of blessing, we will naturally long to teach it to others for the word is not something that we can keep to ourselves. First we learn from God and then we teach it to others. Do you see how this discipline connects with our mission and vision? Spiritual seekers are hungry for the word and by creating a place where they can be fed, we are creating a place where they can comfortably belong. Our own commitment to the word will lead us to actively learn all that we can in order to teach others the same. And the very act of putting the word we have learned into action will result in great service coming out of our doors. This will all lead to our becoming the righteous people God is calling us to be for this community and for the whole world. A righteous life comes from knowing God’s word.

Now to the question we have had to ask ourselves each week of this series: how do we do it? How do we effectively practice the discipline of Scripture meditation. Probably the best way I know is through an ancient practice known as lectio divina. This practice, which means “holy reading,” has helped countless Christians over numerous centuries develop this discipline in their lives. Lectio divina is a way to get us beyond merely reading the Bible for completion to reading it for comprehension, application, and interaction with the God it reveals. There are four parts to this practice: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation). (Who knew Latin was so easy!) For the lectio we choose a passage of Scripture and read it slowly, not worrying about how much or how fast we are reading, and listen carefully for God’s still small voice. (This practice goes very well when accompanied by the Centering Prayer.) As we read, we listen specifically for a word or phrase in the passage that stands out to us and focus on it. After taking time to read the passage, in the meditatio we spend time reflecting on the word or phrase, letting the words and presence of God fill our hearts and minds (herein is the key difference between this and New Age/Eastern meditation). We meditate on what God is saying to us personally through these words. After taking time to reflect on the words, we pray them back to God—the oratio. As we pray we talk to God about what He has spoken to us through these words. If the words convey a promise from God, we claim it as our own; if a command, we accept it as a part of our lives. Finally, in the contemplatio, we quietly rest in God’s loving presence, allowing Him to continue speaking to us His words of life. This is like sitting quietly with a loved one when no words need to be spoken. The ultimate goal in all of this is putting ourselves in a place where we can fully experience the Word of God and also the God who spoke it. This interaction with God will lead us forward into a life of righteousness more surely than anything else we can do. A righteous life comes from knowing God’s word.