This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 8, 2020, the Second Lord’s Day of Lent at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the second in a series of sermons exploring the marks of membership in United Methodist Churches: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It interacts with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life (Abingdon Press, 2019).
Today’s sermon is based on Psalm 1; 2 Timothy 1:3-7, 13-14, 3:14-7.
This week, I couldn’t help but come to this conclusion: the Apostle Paul was a little like Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original three Star Wars films. In them, Obi-Wan sought out one of the central characters, Luke Skywalker, when Luke was young, to guide him into his future as a Jedi. Then, he often mysteriously appeared to Luke in times of need, or at least messages from him resurfaced in Luke’s mind. They were messages of comfort, correction, and encouragement. This is something of what’s happening in many of Paul’s letters, but the force of it is especially strong in his Second Letter to Timothy. To hear this, let’s play with the letter a little, as though it were a bit of a distant message from Paul to Timothy.
Timothy, it’s me, Paul.
I think of you often and I remember your tear-streaked face as I left you. I pray that you are well. I remember too your mother Eunice and your grandmother Lois, and how strong and vibrant their faith in Jesus was. I am sure they’ve continued to encourage you in this good news faith too.
Life may grow difficult for you at times, Timothy. As I have, you may encounter people or situations that will lead you to wonder if this way of life with Jesus is true and good. But remember this: when I laid hands on you when we first met in Lystra (Acts 16), and throughout your life, God’s Spirit has been upon you, and will continue to be upon you, like a fire burning within you. Fan this fire. The Spirit will give you power, love, and self-discipline (2 Tim 1:4-14).
Remember the gospel of Jesus, the good news I taught you, too, and how I taught you to read the scriptures through Jesus. Guard this good news, like you would a special treasure, with the help of the Spirit who lives in you.
Here, Timothy pipes up, “But how? How do I fan the flame of the Spirit and guard the good news of Jesus?”
Oh, Timothy. You know, and have always known. It’s what Eunice and Lois, have continually been doing with you since you were a child: studying the sacred writings, scripture. It’s like David said in the psalms: The one who delights in God’s teachings, Gods torah, and meditates on them day and night is happy, blessed. That one is like a tree planted by a stream, growing strong and fruitful (para. Ps 1). The scriptures have everything you need for living a whole, saved, life in Jesus. God breathed all scripture so that, through it, God can teach, correct, shape, and train us for faithful living. Studying the sacred writings is the foremost way God will empower you for Christ-revealing living in the world.
In case you’re not a Star Wars fan, we should end this image here, but I hope it’s added a little flesh to the message from Paul to Timothy in today’s passage. Paul knows Timothy, cares about him deeply, knows his family, and longs for him to grow in God’s calling to grow in the knowledge, love, and service of Jesus. Elsewhere, Paul will have other things to say about how Timothy, and we, might grow in faith, but here, Paul sticks with one theme through the first and third chapters of the letter: read scripture. Paul’s message, echoing Psalm 1, is simple: God reveals Godself and shapes us through the reading of scripture, so that our living will reveal God to others.
Last weekwe began our series of five essential practices of the Christian life – of walking with Jesus – by thinking about how we talk to and praise God: in worship and prayer. But obviously, the other part of communication is listening, and from Paul and the psalmist, we find that the best way to listen to God’s voice in our lives is to read scripture. As Hamilton says in The Walk, “[If] we’re serious about walking with God daily, knowing God and God’s will for us, reading and studying Scripture will be a regular part of our lives” (loc 498). Paul, and Hamilton, emphasize reading scripture because it’s what Jesus did. Throughout the gospels, we see evidence of Jesus reading, memorizing, praying, and living scripture. So, to follow Jesus is to develop practices of listening to God through scripture like him.
Today, our calling and challenge for the week is to focus on the practice of listening to God through scripture reading. But, because Paul’s language about scripture is so well known, it’s worth first exploring what we and Paul mean by “sacred writings” or “scripture,” and also how we might grow in our practice of reading scripture.
In today’s passage, when Paul says, “all Scripture,” he didn’t mean the Bible as we have it. Today, we include the New Testament as scripture, as something God-breathed – a term Paul created for the idea of how God works through scripture. But when he said all scripture is God-breathed, he initially intended it to mean the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible. That’s the Bible of Paul, and of Jesus. Paul wouldn’t have thought of his letters, or the gospels that were beginning to circulate in his lifetime, as scripture, like we do now.
As we consider what Paul meant by “all scripture,” it’s also important to remember that Paul was a Pharisee before he began following Jesus (Acts 23:6). The Pharisaic tradition developed in Israel between the Second Century BCE and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. We may know that Pharisees emphasized faithfulness to the Jewish Torah in all areas of life – which may or may not have been heavy-handed, but here’s something fascinating. The Pharisees emphasized faithfulness to scripture, to torah, in both its written and oral traditions.
The written tradition of Torah was the first five books of the bible. The oral tradition developed out of the synagogues, in which rabbis would develop ways of interpreting written scripture. A particular rabbi’s interpretive focus would be called his, “yoke.” So, when Jesus tells disciples to take his yoke upon them, he’s saying, “Follow my interpretations and example” (Mt 11:29). Paul says a similar thing to Timothy: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 1:14 NIV). As a Pharisee, Paul’s idea of scripture is bigger than we’d expect. But also as a Pharisee, Paul wants Timothy, and all who walk with Jesus, to use Jesus as the interpretive lens, the yoke, through which we read scripture, just like he does.
For Paul, as well as for Jesus, God reveals Godself and shapes us through scripture study, so that we can be faithful and fruitful. The challenge for us, as it was for Timothy, is to be a people who, in the words of Psalm 1, meditate on it day and night, and delight in scripture. To find delight in something that takes so much energy – day and night – is perhaps similar to how I find delight in running, or how I hope my kids will someday find delight in salad with spinach and kale: we find delight through practice.
And so, our challenge today, our calling as people seeking to walk with Jesus, is to grow beyond where we are in our scripture reading practices, and our hands can show us the way. First, we have five fingers, which can remind us to read five verses a day, preferably in one sitting. And if we’re already there, then the five fingers can challenge us to read five chapters of scripture a week, with two days left over to catch up.
Each time we read, we might do well to start with a brief prayer like this, “God, speak to me.” Then we read. Maybe we study with some notes, or follow ideas to other passages we know or discover. And repeatedly as we’re reading and then pondering, we can also pray again, “God, speak to me.”
Second, our other, fisted hand, reminds us our communal practice of reading scripture. Paul talked about how he, Eunice, and Lois all trained up Timothy. Jesus called a group of friends to explore the scripture way of living together. So too does God call us to share in scripture reading in small groups, so that we can grow like a tree planted by running water.
Like Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker, Paul is instructing Timothy, and all of us, to develop practices of listening to God through faithful practices of scripture reading. We do this because Jesus did it, because Paul did it, and because this is always how God has chosen to reveal godself.
And yet, as Christians, we read scripture best when we read it through Jesus, God’s living Word. He’s our yoke. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, of all scripture, and the fullest revelation of God. And so, as we’re reading scripture, we hold each passage up to Jesus, we look for clues about how his life and teaching lead us to interpret each passage. Sometimes, we’ll find passages that are complicated, or that we can’t quite make sense of in light of Jesus. When this happens, I propose an imaginary bucket. Place the scriptures we don’t yet understand in the bucket, and then, periodically, we can take them out again and see if the Spirit has inspired us to read them anew through Jesus.
God reveals Godself and shapes us through scripture study, so that we can be faithful and fruitful. May we take up Jesus’ calling to read scripture daily alone. May we take up the further challenge of reading scripture with a group. And may we hear God’s voice through scripture, that we might grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness, as trees planted beside fresh water.