This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 1, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
Feasting on the Word.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Would you pray with me? O Still speaking God who we hear not just in the pages of Scripture, but who we encounter in the blowing wind, the whispers of love and compassion from caring neighbors and friends, the cries for justice from the oppressed, forgotten, and forsaken, and throughout our lives, open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds that we might see and hear what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture. Amen.
This week we conclude the series we have been exploring as a church entitled “Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life”. In the face of stress and trials, hard work and difficult callings, if we are not daily connected with the Spirit we can reach the limit of our powers, yet when we are connected with the Spirit, we can find strength and wisdom beyond our own which Isaiah 40 promises, saying God “does not faint or grow weary” but instead “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This past month we have looked at different practices that help us connect with the Spirit and the strength and refreshment the Spirit gives — meditation and communion; various kinds of prayer; listening for God’s still-speaking voice; and practices of letting go like sabbath, simplicity, solitude, and fasting. Our Scripture readings today point to another place we can turn to to experience God’s Spirit in fresh ways: God’s Word.
Before I look at what these texts say, do any of you have ways you can share that turning to God’s Word has helped you connect to this strength and renewal promised in God’s Spirit when you needed it?
In our Gospel reading, Jesus faces down the ultimate in temptations and is able to resist each one by staying connected with the Word of God. In fact, when tempted, Jesus makes a challenging claim: we cannot live on bread alone. Our true nourishment cannot come from simply food, water, and shelter, but also has to come from the Word of God. Jesus’ experience suggests some ways in which the Spirit can strengthen us through us taking time to connect with God’s Word.
First, when we bathe ourselves in God’s Word as Jesus did, we remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are in God’s eyes, and what God’s purposes in our world are. Ultimately these truths are what Jesus points to again and again as he resists temptation. Right before these temptations, Jesus is baptised. All the Gospels tell us that, when Jesus is baptised, God speaks over Jesus “this is my child, the one I love, the one in whom I am well-pleased” and the Spirit rests upon him like a mother dove sheltering her baby bird under her wings. When we are baptized, we claim for ourselves those words as also true of us personally through Christ, and we invite the Spirit to embrace us as a mother does her children, just as the Spirit embraced Jesus. Through Christ, we are ones whom God loves unreservedly and unconditionally, and upon whom the Spirit rests. Think of it! Through Christ you and I are — and all people can be — God’s very own children. Through Christ, you and I are — and all people can be — ones in whom God is well-pleased before we can do anything right or wrong, regardless of our mistakes or failures, but simply because we are God’s own.
In our Gospel, Jesus is tempted first and foremost not to make this or that choice, but to forget who God said he is. “If you are the Son of God…” then prove it! . Ultimately our first temptation is often the same: to forget who we are — to forget we are loved without condition, to forget we are embraced without question, to forget that we are a delight to God and deserving of delight, to forget that God is not far off but always embracing us through the Spirit; and to forget this is true for all we meet. We are tempted to act as if we and as if they are undeserving, unworthy, less than who God says we and they are. We only embrace self-destructive choices, only live up to less than the fullest life we are made for, by forgetting who we and others are in God’s eyes. Staying rooted in God’s Word helps us, helps you and me, remember and live into who we truly are and all the best God has for us.
Also, the fact the Tempter quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus suggests what feasting on God’s Word is not. It is not, as we might mistakenly make it, just about knowing and being able to quote specific Scripture verses. You see, though we often fail to recognize it, according to Scripture itself, the “Word of God” is more than the words of Scripture written in black, white, and red in the pages of our Bible. Just as the Tempter can quote Scripture verses, throughout history there is a long and sad history of people joining the Tempter in misusing Scripture. History is littered with examples: those who claimed to be feasting on the Word while choosing to mis-use Scripture to justify racism, to justify slavery, to justify marginalizing and mistreating women, to justify putting down and pushing out gay people, and even in NAZI Germany quoting Scripture to justify breaking up the families of our Jewish brothers and sisters, throwing them out of their homes, shipping them away in trains, and casting them into gas chambers. Even today some claim to feast on the Word while using Scripture to justify breaking up immigrant families both at our borders and in our neighborhoods, even though Christ warns in Matthew 25 that on Judgement Day how we treat so-called foreigners in our midst will determine how we are judged by Christ himself, for in Christ’s eyes, whatever we do or fail to do to the least of these , we do or fail to do to Him.
The words of Scripture can be misunderstood, twisted, and misused, but the living Word of God itself cannot be twisted, for that Word is the heart and mind of the One the Scriptures proclaim and point to. This is why Hebrews 4 tells us “ the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”. This is why John 1 tells us that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” As CS Lewis once wrote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him.” Ultimately the Word of God in which we are to bathe ourselves and upon which our souls can feast, is not just empty words on a page but the heart and mind of the living still-speaking Christ to whom they point: the One in whom we live and move and have our being, that One who is still active in our lives and world, guiding and leading all who look and listen for him in all places and times.
When we connect with this living Word of God through our time in Scripture, letting the still-speaking presence of Christ open us up to who we are in Christ, and to where Christ is working and acting in our lives and world, we too will be able to see through the false promises of our temptations, say no to them, and say yes to God’s best. We will be able to see through those misusing Scripture for their own ends, not giving into their temptation.
This requires connecting with God’s Word in the way Psalm 119 suggests when it says “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”. In his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, Henri Nouwen likens it to letting God paint pictures on the walls of your heart, so that you carry upon the walls of your own heart a picture of who you are, whose you are, and what God is about in your world. Whenever you become tired, weak, and worn — thus easily tempted — you can pause and look within, to where God’s Word has been painted and be reminded what counts, and what doesn’t.
This painting on the walls of our heart with God’s Word’s of who we are, whose we are, and what our world is for is what Colossians means when it talks about letting the Word of God dwell in you richly. I want to spend my remaining time today talking about practices we can engage in throughout our daily lives to help let’s God Word dwell in us, so the walls of our heart and life are decorated with God’s message to us about ourselves, our place in God’s plan.
What are some ways you connecting with God’s Word that help you “feast on the Word”?
The first practice of feasting on God’s Word I want to mention is regular devotional reading of Scripture. Devotional reading of Scripture is just reading a short passage maybe every day or every few days for inspiration, without digging any deeper. That alone can connect you with God’s Word.
Next we have study of Scripture. This is reading the Bible in a careful, systematic way. Instead of reading a few verses every day or two (or maybe week, for some of us), you carefully read through the Scripture: reading bit by bit through a book of the Bible, seeing how its verses fit together. You pick up commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, whether in print or online, and look into the history, context, background. You read how different people have interpreted it, and compare what makes sense and what doesn’t. In studying a Scripture, you can get a deeper understanding of it, and see what it means in context instead of picked up just to argue a point.
The next practice is praying the Scripture. This can be picking a line of Scripture you have been studying like “be still and know that I am holy”, “not by might not by power but by my Spirit saith Lord” or something else, and repeating that line word by word as a prayer, letting the meaning of each word speak to your heart, and talking to God about what each word brings up. It can also be doing that one line or a time through a longer part of Scripture, like a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or another section in the Bible.
Then we have Lectio Divina, which is a kind of meditation on a section of Scripture. Here you take a short section of Scripture and read through it multiple times, slowly paying attention to each word and asking God to guide you to what you need to see. The first time through, just sit with the whole section and what stands out. Then, on your second reading of that Scripture, pay attention to a word, image, event, or experience that stands out to you, looking for what it brings up in your heart or mind and praying about that. Then read it again and pay attention to what response you feel called to as you read it, and commit to that with God. And in your final reading pay attention to how God’s presence is evoked by the passage, and rest in your sense of God present to you. In a related form of Scripture meditation, Gospel contemplation, you do practically the same thing but instead of focusing on a word or image, you imagine yourself as if you are a different character within the Bible story you read in each reading, asking what it would feel like to experience what it describes from their point of view and what that teaches you about yourself, others, and God.
A final way of experiencing the Word Colossians speaks about is in song — Colossians tells us that singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs throughout our day is one way we can invite God’s Word to dwell in us richly. St. Augustine once said that to sing to God is to pray twice — both with your mind through the words you sing but also with your heart, your feelings, and your soul as those words are sung as music. Listening to Scripture set to music in hymns, praise songs, and other kinds of music — let alone singing it yourself – can help it come to rest in your heart in a powerful way. In my work as a hospice chaplain, I am always amazed at how people with Alzheimer’s or dementia can forget their name and struggle to speak but still sing along with hymns they were taught in the church over the years when I sing those song with them.
In closing, I want to challenge you to pick one of these practices of connecting with God’s Word and try them regularly this week, daily if possible, and see what ways it opens you up to God’s presence.
As we conclude this series on Drinking Deep the Waters of Life, let us continue to remember the true source of our life and strength: the living presence of God which can lift us up, giving us new strength, new energy, and new direction throughout our lives. Amen and Amen.