Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on August 23, 2009.
2 Timothy 3:14-17
The Bible is a book for the future, about the future, and written with confidence in the future. It embraces the future not out of disgust with the present or with the past but out of the conviction that God is in the future, and to be where God is, is to know fulfillment, purpose, and bliss. Who should be satisfied with anything less than that?
—Peter Gomes in The Good Book
The first part of this week, I will be engaged with a group of pastor friends who have met annually for almost 20 years. Some of us have known each other for 30 years or more. We get together and share ideas and things that we do in our churches. One of the things that we always do is bring a list of the books that we are reading. This year, we have been given the assignment to bring a list of the top ten books that have been most influential in our lives and in our ministry, other than the Bible. The first one that I put on my list was a book from 1982 entitled In Search of Excellence. As I was preparing the sermon, I remembered what one of the authors, Tom Peters, had written in the follow-up book about that book. Here is what he said: Perhaps 5 million people bought copies of In Search of Excellence in its 15 translations. If history is any guide, two or three million probably opened the bok;, 400,000 or 500,000 read as much as four or five chapters; 100,000 or so read it cover to cover; 25,000 took notes; and 5,000 took detailed notes. This is not speculation. After many speaking presentations, I am regularly asked to sign books and the number with bent pages and heavy underlining is dispiritingly low.
From 5,000,000 to 5,000, who is the math person? Is that a tenth of a percent? That’s low.
I was reminded of a story that I heard a pastor friend tell one time about going to the sanctuary on Sunday morning to retrieve his Bible. He needed his Bible for a funeral and he had left it on the pulpit. He went in to retrieve it, and as he was leaving the sanctuary, there on one of the front pews, he found a Bible. When he saw it, he was immediately struck by, What saint of God does this Bible belong to? He said the genuine Morocco leather was cracked and the spine was broken. It was barely holding the pages together. It looked like it had been someone’s treasure for a very long time. In an effort to find out who this Bible could belong to, he opened up the front cover but there was no name in it. He then started to look through the pages. It was one of those books where it wasn’t very well made and they had not cut all the pages apart. There were hundreds of pages in that Bible that had never been cut apart. Once you got past the yellowing around the edges of the pages, you could tell that no one had ever opened it. When I read that quotation from In Search of Excellence, I was reminded about his experience with that Bible. We defend it; we promote it; we define it; we claim it as our own. But if we start doing the percentages, wouldn’t we all be embarrassed to admit how much or how little our Bibles may be read.
We are working our way toward celebrating the 175th year of First Baptist Church on May 16, 2010. Each month we emphasize something in our church’s history that has been important to us. Today, we are emphasizing the teaching of the Bible in our 175 years together as a congregation. It would be very easy to heap on the guilt and say everybody should be ashamed they don’t read the Bible more. That is so counterproductive to the Gospel. I think one of the reasons why we don’t read it is because we don’t really understand what it is that we hold in our hands. We don’t understand what blessing and opportunity is here. Many times we think that the Bible is a tool for seeking God. Yes, it is. We probably have all heard testimonies from people who were in some dark night of the soul. They found themselves in a place like the Holiday Inn and opened the drawer to the nightstand and found a Gideon’s Bible. They opened it up and found a passage. They could tell you what the passage was, how it saved their life, and how it brought them in touch with God. The Bible is no doubt a tool for seeking God. But that is like saying a quarter is heads. A quarter is heads and tails. There are two sides to it. There are two sides to what the Bible is in this seeking process. Not only is it a tool through which we can seek God and find God’s word for us, but it is a tool through which God seeks us. How many times have some of us opened it up and read something and we were reminded that before we ever started seeking God, God was already calling our name. God was already looking for us.
Early in the Bible, in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve have sinned. God comes into the garden in the cool of the day and they have hidden themselves because they are naked. God’s question to them is, “Where are you?” God is already seeking.
The first eleven chapters is a pretty sorry account of sin on the part of human beings, but by the time you get to the 12th chapter, God is already working on a plan to try to bring people back. God is seeking. So he calls Abraham. “Abraham, I need somebody to be the father of a nation. This nation is going to be the tool through which I will call the people of the world back to me.” God is seeking.
You can find it in so many pages of the Psalms. You can find it in the prophets, and by the time you get to the New Testament, it is hard to open the Bible without it striking you in the face. Jesus says that God is a shepherd looking for lost sheep. He is a woman sweeping the house looking for the lost coin. He is a father at the end of the road waiting for that prodigal son to come home. When he describes to the crowd why he has come and what he is doing, he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to the save that which is lost.” The message isn’t just, If we went to look for God, we can find God, but the message is that God is already looking for us.
I think sometimes we are a little afraid to read the book for fear that we might open it up and something might be there that is God speaking to us and we weren’t quite that ready to be found. It is a book in which we can see God, but it is also a book in which we can seek God. It is a book we can open up and hear God’s voice speak to us, and God is looking.
In the same way, people portray it as an answer book. No doubt, you can find answers to some of the most significant questions of life. Why are we here? What is my purpose in life? What should I do with my life? But the Bible is also a book that asks us questions for us to answer.
After you were out of school, have you ever been in some type of seminar and they said, Take out a piece of paper and answer this question. You are looking around to see who is doing this. Is anybody really doing this? That person over there is a Type A personality and they have to do it. I don’t see anybody else doing it. We don’t really do the work. Do you know what I am talking about? You are thinking, I am not going to do that. I am not going to make this list. I will just think it in my mind and remember it later. But the people who really do the work are the people who really get the benefit. There are questions that are asked in scripture that a lot of us just read right by it because we don’t want to answer that. I don’t want to think what that answer might mean for my life.
Again, start in the beginning. Look at the story of Cain and Abel. God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”
Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In today’s world, we could spend a lifetime trying to answer what scripture wants to say to us about that.
Isaiah is in the temple and God needs a messenger and says, “And who shall go for us? Whom shall we sent?” This is a world that needs people to go out and be doing the work of the kingdom. When we read that, we can just assume, “I am glad there is a missionary someplace doing that so I don’t have to go. Maybe if we really stopped and listened long enough to the question and answered it, maybe we would discover there is someplace God wants to send us. I don’t necessarily mean overseas.
Jesus is in the bow of the boat and a storm comes up. “Master, don’t you care that we are perishing?” He turns to them, looks, and says, “Why are you afraid?” That is a question we probably don’t want to answer or spend a lot of time dwelling on because we might really have to deal with what we are afraid of and why we are afraid and what it means to be a person of faith and still be afraid of that, but it is a question that comes out of the book.
Then there is that terrible day when everybody has gathered around the blood-thirsty mob and they have cried out for Barabbas. We need to remember, these are not pagans or heathens. These are not people who are not believers. These are the pilgrims who have come for the religious pilgrimage of the Passover. These are the religious of the religious. Pilate looks out over the crowd and says, “What would you do with Jesus?” Sometimes, I would just like to pass over that question, but open it up and there are just so many pages where it is just like being slapped in the face and the voice of God comes out of this book and asks us a question, “What does this mean in my life? What is God trying to say? What is God trying to call me to do? Am I my brother’s keeper? Who is supposed to go? Is there something I am supposed to do? Why am I afraid?”
I think about the question Jesus asked the man there by the pool, “Do you want to be well?” I have met a lot of people in my life that I think if were honest, they would answer that question, “No.” What does it mean to be a person of faith and answer these questions? There is a lot more to do there than just look up the answers to the questions we want to ask.
One other thing. Dr. Mike McCullar who was leading the Sunday school teachers and also the adults earlier this morning made a great statement. He said, “Baptists didn’t invent Sunday school, we just perfected it.” It is kind of like the chicken and the chicken sandwich. We didn’t invent Sunday school but we have done a pretty good job with it. But we call it Sunday school. And that thing that goes on in the summer for children, we call that Vacation BibleSchool. Of course, they both find their origins in the same time that the public school movement in America was coming on so it was called a school. But sometimes that gives us the impression that the only important thing about the Bible is to treat it like we would if we were in school. How much do you know about the Bible? Can you name these facts about the Bible? Can you quote this about the Bible? Do you have the right theory about the Bible? We think if we can check off the list and know enough things to pass somebody’s litmus test factually, that is all there is to know about the Bible. Look at the passage from 2 Timothy 3:14-17. People say all manner of things about this passage. Paul is talking to Timothy and what the passage really says is, the scripture is enough to lead us to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and it is enough to shape our lives to be more like Jesus.
Knowing facts about scripture would be critical, but it is more than that. It is not just knowing the facts, it is taking it to heart. What would have a greater impact in your life or my life: to know more additional facts about scripture or to obey the scripture that I already know? What would make the greater difference: to know something new that I didn’t know before or to take those things that I have heard and believe and obey them and really begin to follow Jesus Christ in this way? It is hard for me to think of another fact that would change my life as much as obedience to what I already know would change my life.
Sometimes we think it is a book that we can sit on a shelf. If we want to look for God we will pick it up and see, but we pick it up and find God is already looking for us. We come to it with our set questions and think, I am going to see what I can find. I want to see what page that is on. I want to see the answer to my question. Then we open it up and find God is already questioning us.
Then we like to leave it where it is just mental. OK. I believe that. OK. I know that. Good. It really is about shaping the heart and a life in obedience that lives like Jesus.
One hundred and seventy-five years is a rare church that is that old and this strong today. I believe there are three things that make a church strong. One is prayer. We must always be people of prayer. We cannot do this by ourselves. Two, is being involved in the work of the kingdom through Christian ministry and service. That is essential. Sometimes people make it an option. The third is scripture as the foundation, scripture as a living part, shaping who we are and how we believe and how we respond to the world, individually and as a congregation. How on earth could we be a faithful and thriving congregation if we just tucked it away and didn’t pay any attention to it?
I like the meditation text today from Peter Gomes who talks about the Bible being a book of the future. It contains stories about the past but it really is about the future. Some of you have many collective years as Bible teachers in this congregation and we owe you a great debt of gratitude for keeping the Bible alive, fresh, real, and inspiring in front of us. But today, as we celebrate 175 years, we need to remember that it is not just about the heritage, it is about what comes next. It is about keeping this book, and all that it can be, in front of us, to shape our lives so that we can be what God has called us to be.
It is from these pages that we find all that we need to know Christ. It is from these pages that we find all we need to know to be faithful in following him.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.