The Bible is a rich and diverse book, put in written form over several centuries. It is full of stories, history, theology, poetry, parables, wisdom, letters, instruction, good news and so much more! Sometimes the Bible can be scary – and you stand in good company if the Bible intimidates you. How can one read such a large volume, and where to begin? Other times a verse or two speaks so loudly to us those words cannot be ignored.
We say that the Bible is God’s word – that God speaks through the words of the scriptures. The Bible is not just an arcane book on the shelf – it is a living breathing word where God reaches out to us. There a numerous ways to read the Bible theologically, there are historical contexts that are helpful to know in studying it, and there are many traditions that help us understand it. However, what I’d like to offer you today is to listen to the stories of the Bible as if they are written for you. True, life is different in the twenty-first century than in any other age (including the centuries that brought us the Bible), but if the scriptures really are God’s living words for our lives as we claim they are, we can trust that God uses these words to break into our lives and speak just as he has broken into the lives of countless others across the ages.
When reading the stories in the Bible, try to imagine yourself as one of the characters. I like to ask myself questions about what they experienced, and what I have gone through that connects to them. Those personal connections seem to make these stories – even the amazing and hard to believe ones – so real.
What would it be like to be Jacob running away from home after stealing from his brother? (When is the last time I swindled somebody out of something?)
What would it feel like when Daniel is thrown in the lions’ den?
(When have I felt lost, alone and in danger?)
What would it be like to have enough courage like Peter; asking to walk on water with Jesus, only to fall in?
(When have I “fallen in” because I panicked when I should have been more focused?)
There are many places to find ourselves in the story. Would I believe it if an angel told me something ridiculous, like he told Mary before Jesus was born? Could I pick up and leave everything, like Abraham and Sarah, like Ruth, and like Jesus’ disciples? Should we be as bold as a prophet like Jeremiah that believed and stood his ground when nobody would listen? What would it be like to touch Jesus? To be blind and now see? To be hurting and now healed? To be forgiven when we didn’t deserve it? Just as the people who seem to find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, God meets us even in our ordinary ones. When might I have not seen the miraculous, or heard God call, or overlooked something amazing because I was too busy, or too certain it wasn’t possible, or too self-assured to notice?
What about the parts of the Bible that aren’t stories? How might we stand in those? What if you read the Psalms as if they were your own prayers addressed to God? What if the histories and violence in the Holy Land throughout those centuries shows us our need for God in our own violent time? What if the prophet’s demands for justice and dependence of God’s mercy were directed at my life and not just a community who lost its way so many years ago? What about the letters? Most were written to a community about a certain issue and context, but aren’t our issues and contexts also worthy of correction, instruction and proclamation? I know I could use some good news. I bet you could too.
What about the gospels? I like to think about each evangelist as a storyteller when I read the stories we have of Jesus. I try to ask, not only what is Jesus up to here, but what does Matthew or Mark or Luke or John want me to know about Jesus in that story? I ponder how Jesus meets us in his encounters with others as I wonder why the details matter and how they can teach me more.
However you might engage the scriptures, I hope you can be renewed as God meets us in them. There is a lot in the Bible. Take it off the shelf. If you are not sure where to start, open it. Listen to the binding crackle. Stand in it. Listen to it. Learn and grow inside. You will start to see connections that you never knew were even there, including the joy of knowing others (even Christ) stand with you.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
Here are a few Bible reading suggestions:
Many people have a hard time reading the scriptures because they start with Genesis and get lost in a genealogy or a long list of something somewhere. Let me offer you a different starting place – the place we engage most Sunday mornings. Start with a gospel. This particular year we are reading Mark as the primary gospel text, so start with Mark. Mark is also the shortest of the four gospels and probably the first one written so it is as good a place as any to begin. Rather than feel like you have to read lots at a time – read until you have to pause and think. Write down a question or scribble something in the margin and stop there. So often we rush through things we don’t pause enough to listen. There is some wisdom that we take a year with each gospel on Sunday mornings so we can stop and look around while as we stand in the story together.
Once you work through Mark, set your sights on another book. The Bible is more of a library than it is a single volume so skipping around won’t hurt at all. Check out the table of contents in your Bible, and if longer books are anxiety provoking then pick something short. Maybe Jonah (four chapters) or maybe James or Ephesians might be good places to land (both are five chapters long).
Some people really like reading plans. Here is a good list to pick from depending on how involved you would like to get, ranging from “newbie” to “advanced” –
Others like daily lectionaries that function like our Sunday mornings do – with a reading from both the Old and New Testament. Here is a place you can find a list of daily readings that go along with the lectionary readings for Sunday, http://www.elca.org/Growing-In-Faith/Worship/Daily-Lectionary/Year-B.aspx. There are several others available too.
Use your Bible reading as a conversation with God. God is speaking to you so why not speak back? Write down your questions, use the margins for comments and underline things that stand out. There are insights to be gleaned from others. Bible study groups and Bible study guides or commentaries are great ways to be encouraged.
Shameless Plugs – Our evening Bible study group meets Wednesdays at 7:45 p.m.
Our Adult Forum meets on Sunday’s at 9:15, right after the Sunday School opening in the Fellowship Hall. I hope to see you there!