Some of you have heard the dramatic story from a study abroad experience I had in college. I was blessed to attend Chiang Mai University in Thailand during my junior year at St. Olaf. Halfway through the semester, we had a break. Two other women and I decided to spend it in Malaysia. It was sure to be a great adventure — which it was, but not in the way I had hoped.
The great adventure turned sour the last night we were there. We returned to our room after dinner to discover that my passport and credit card had been stolen. My mistake, I know, to not have those things in my possession at all times. Regardless, you can imagine my panic.
The next morning the other two women caught the train back to Chiang Mai to return to school on time. Heading back meant they could let our leaders know about my situation and be at the ready to help. They pooled what little cash they had and gave it to me before they left. The adventure to right the predicament I was in is too long to go in to here, but by the nature of me being here, you can assume it all worked out.
I live with a strong memory of feeling absolutely terrified and completely alone when my friends boarded that train. I had no idea what to do — I didn’t speak the language, had very little money and no ID, and remember this was long before cell phones. So the first thing I did that morning was to find a spot, sit down and cry. Then I dug through my suitcase to find my travel size bible.
It felt kind of instinctual, even though reading the bible wasn’t on my list of daily things to do when I was 20. I didn’t turn to the bible thinking I’d find the answer for my best next step. I was at my wit’s end. It was a crisis moment. I had nothing. But I had a bible. Maybe the bible would somehow make a difference? Maybe some kind of divine word would speak to me, assuring me that everything would be okay. I believed enough to open it and read. I remember reading Isaiah 43 — and the words of the prophet have held power for me ever since:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…
Reading the bible didn’t give me an answer for what to do in my situation, but I will tell you that a wave of peace washed over me and that I felt a strength to forge ahead. This is the mystery of faith, right?
In a crisis moment — even if you’re not a daily bible reader — faith turns you to scripture, or a hope that someone will turn to it on your behalf, to offer a word of comfort and hope.
Which makes complete sense in light of the history of how the bible came into existence. The bible was born out of crisis experienced by people of faith. Much of what we find in the bible originated from oral tradition, but eventually, the stories were written down. Scholars believe that this shift from oral to written gained momentum when Israel was exiled from Judah and held captive in Babylonia. They’d lost their home, their temple, their land, their governing powers. They had nothing except stories, at the heart of which was God’s promise that they belonged to God and that God would not abandon them — in spite of how far they were from that as their current reality.
These stories changed their perspective and nourished hope for a future that was different, better. These stories assured the people of their identity, reminding them of who they were and to whom they belonged.
That’s why we read the bible too. We read the bible to be reminded of who we are and whose we are. We read the bible to learn and remember the stories that inform our faith and give us hope.
Scripture doesn’t exist to answer particular 21st-century questions. It does exist to tell a particular story of who God is, of how God chooses to show up, and of our part in God’s story that continues to unfold.
We’re in a sermon series called “Is There More To Life Than This?” which focuses on common questions for people of faith. The questions we’ve been lifting up the last few weeks come from Nikki Gumble, author of the Alpha series that we’ll be offering in the fall. We hope you’ll participate in this opportunity to wrestle with questions together — not with the goal of finding an answer, but with hope that in the wrestling God will bless you with a deeper appreciation for the mystery of faith and the wonder of getting to know other people.
Today’s question is, “Why and how should I read the bible?” I’ve named the why. So what about the how?
If you approach reading the bible like a new year’s resolution (this year I’m going to read it, start to finish), you’re not alone. It’s an honorable goal but hard to do… I mean, when you hit all those “begats” in the fifth chapter of Genesis — the very first book — it tends to slow a person down! If you make it through that, well there’s six chapters of instructions regarding the Temple furnishings to look forward to, or the nine chapters of genealogical lists with which 1 Chronicles begins. It’s no wonder good intentions to read the bible from start to finish get derailed.
Parts of it are hard to read. The stories are just as often harsh as they are hopeful. The characters are endearing and courageous. They’re also flawed and self-serving. And sometimes the God we encounter in scripture doesn’t sync with who we expect or want God to be. Rachel Held Evans describes the bible as “an unsettling version of one of those children’s peekaboo books. Beneath the colorful illustration of Noah’s ark was — surprise! — the violent destruction of humanity. Turn the page to Joshua and the battle of Jericho and — peekaboo! — it’s genocide. Open to Queen Esther’s castle and — look! — there’s a harem full of concubines.”
It’s tempting to gloss over the ugly stuff or avoid the stories that don’t make sense. But engaging with all of scripture brings a depth to faith that’s not otherwise possible. There isn’t one right way to read scripture, but when you approach the sacred texts with humility and curiosity the Holy Spirit finds space in your heart to work the wonder of God’s Word.
The speed with which you read the bible isn’t important. But to make reading something every day — whether one verse, one chapter, or one book keeps you centered in a story with the power to transform.
And change it up now and then… Read from different translations to enlarge the story and give new insight into the story of God and God’s people. If you’re longing for a sense of the narrative arc of scripture, I’d encourage NOT to start with the goal of reading the whole bible but to read one of the Gospels in one sitting. You’ll be surprised at how you can get caught up in the drama of the story as a whole.
Something I started doing a couple of years ago is listen to the bible on audiobooks. Remember, the stories originated in “telling” the story. I’ve been surprised at the connections I pick up on when listening that I’ve missed when reading.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, enlist others. We can help you with this if you’d like. Read the bible with others. It’s a book to be shared, explored, and studied with community. The richness of the story has more opportunities to come to light with multiple people participating in the conversation.
In our reading from Ephesians, the community is in a crisis moment. They had thought the end was near; that Jesus would have returned by now. What’s God’s plan? Paul addresses their anxiety and fears. He reminds them who they are and that God’s plan has already been revealed in the life and work of Jesus Christ: We are each a beloved child of God and God’s plan is to heal and redeem the whole world.
And here, at the end of the letter, Paul gives a visual illustration that the Church can imagine what it looks like to be dressed with faith: putting on God’s armor as we go into the world. It’s not a metaphor to incite the church to violence, but to remember that our true protection against the evil and pain in the world involves truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and scripture. These are gifts available to you as you live your life in Christ.
What might the world look like if we were in the habit of arming ourselves with these things? Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and scripture? As you create a picture in your mind of what that world looks like, know that God has already established that reality in Jesus Christ. It breaks in now and then. By God’s grace, you will see that it is so.