The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. — Psalm 23
Do you ever feel like the world is too noisy? Too demanding of every moment? There are meetings to be at, functions to attend, demands to be met, and if we’re not careful, our calendars and busyness can separate us from God.
Psalm 23 invites us to take a step or two away from the demands of the world. The psalmist’s words invoke an image of peace, rest, and tranquility taken next to a stream of quiet beauty—an image that has resonated with souls over millennia.
I find soul rejuvenation when I’m near a large body of water like a lake or the ocean. And though I don’t always have the means of picking up and physically traveling to a body of water, I do have the ability of becoming lost in Psalm 23. Scripture can do that for us. It can take us into a place of complete safety if we only allow His word to enter into our soul.
I encourage you to take a moment and ask our Good Shepherd to lead your spirit next to a place of green pastures and quiet waters—so that he may restore your soul. In this time of pandemics and quarantines and riots and divisions, we NEED restoration more than ever. God has invited you. Are you ready to say, “Yes?”
We are hungry, so we eat. We are tired, so we sleep. We answer when our name is called. There are emails and phone calls requesting a reply. There are schedules to be readjusted in light of unexpected events. There is so much to respond to that we often have to prioritize what is worthy of a response.
When the magi in the gospel of Matthew saw an unusual star that aligned with an Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the king, they prioritized their response (Num. 24:17). They cleared their schedules, packed their bags, and set out to find the child. It is unclear how much the magi really knew about who this baby was that they found in Bethlehem, but when they saw him, they bowed down and worshiped him. Their action tells us that they believed this child was one worthy of their praise. Their worship was a reaction for beholding God’s perfect self-revelation, Jesus Christ. He was worthy of their worship.
We hear the word “worship” and probably think of church. But worship is much more than a place on the church bulletin. When we worship God, we are responding to who he is and what he has done for each of us. Worship is like writing a thank you card. We acknowledge the gift that has been received and respond in gratitude to the giver. God has given the ultimate gift, one we could not possibly purchase for ourselves. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for us to be restored into relationship with him. God did this because of his love (John 3:16), and we are able to love in response (1 John 4:19). Through Jesus’ faithfulness in completing the work on the cross, we are enabled to live by faith, trusting that he has truly reconciled us with God. He is worthy of our responsive worship. And our worship should be authentic and free.
So think of how you worship God. Do you worship without inhibition or are you reserved? Giving of yourself to God means you give all you are. It’s time for worship to reflect the joy we have in our identity. Would people see your joy in the way you worship?
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” — Hebrews 12:1-3
Have you ever heard a small part of a conversation and thought, “There’s a good story behind that.” We all experience something like this in our day to day lives as we encounter moments when we hear something, such as a snippet of a conversation, and quickly realize that there is a bigger story we need to be aware of. The same idea applies to Scripture. While it is helpful to pick out certain lines or passages to hold onto, we cannot afford to separate them from their context. To do so would only distort the scriptures.
I would bet many of you have heard scripture taken out of context. You may have unintentionally done it yourself. Have you ever had scripture used to hurt you?
Scripture is a weapon but it’s supposed to be a weapon against evil. Like anything, however, even scripture can be used to harm. Since God has given us this holy book, we must use it as a way to draw closer to God.
Here are a few suggestions for becoming more familiar with the context of Scripture in order that we may know how to respond:
Read extensively. Scholar and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages; it is a unit and is intended to be used as such.” If you spend most of your time in the New Testament, try reading some of the Old Testament as well. If you are focusing on a few verses, be sure to read the whole chapter in which those verses are found. Having a picture of the whole helps us to better understand the particular. And remember—Jesus quoted the Old Testament throughout his life. There’s a reason for that.
Utilize a Study Bible or commentary. Resources like these can help shed light on the historical context of what was going on in the lives of the original audience. They can also help in pointing us towards other passages within Scripture that address the same theme. While not all commentaries are created equal, many of them can help us understand what the text is saying and think through ways of applying it to our lives.
Ask questions. While reading Scripture, ask these three basic questions: 1) What is happening in the text? 2) What is the significance or meaning? 3) How does it relate to my life?
Studying of the scriptures is the most important spiritual discipline you can engage in. If you truly wish to know the heart of God and how to live out your mission as a Christian, read your Bible. God is speaking still.
“Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” —Hebrews 11:1-2
Have you ever done one of those DNA kits? The explosive growth of sites like Ancestry, LivingDNA and 23andMe is indicative of our desire as people to know our story. I have been working on my family tree for some time. We want to know where we came from, what trials our ancestors faced and their stories of endurance. We derive encouragement from the stories, both the good and the bad, as we strive to live up to their example or do better.
The author of Hebrews understood the power of remembering where you came from. Hebrews 11 seems like a hall of fame for people who lived by faith. The list goes on and on and it is quite the list? Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham. The names on the list would have been well-known by the original audience, as well as the stories of each person the author names. For those unfamiliar with the names, the author of Hebrews makes it clear that the people listed here did not have easy lives. They all encountered struggle and hardship. In the midst of their various difficulties though, they had faith, trusting that God was good and faithful to fulfill his promises. I encourage you to read it!
Like people drawing encouragement from the successes of their ancestors,m, so also the author of Hebrews intended this review to motivate the audience in their faith. Hebrews 12 begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).
While the stories in Hebrews 11 are encouraging, the author turns our focus toward Jesus Christ, who “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Eugene Peterson translates the next verse in the following way, “When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!” (Heb. 12:3, The Message).
I don’t know about you but that’s exactly what I have needed this past year. 2020 was a hard year for everyone. And for some this year hasn’t been any better. “When you find yourself flagging in your faith, go over that story again, Adam by Adam, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That was shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
What an exclamation! If you look at the list in Hebrews 11 you will see that each person struggled, faced opposition, was persecuted in someway, or was isolated. If there are times that you believe the people in the Bible are not relatable, it’s likely you have spent time in scripture. God used ordinary people with ordinary circumstances to teach us how to be extraordinary in our faith. Isn’t it time that each of us live into our identity as disciple?
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” — Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Have you ever experienced a really difficult situation? Sure you have! No one skates through life without difficulty from time to time. So how did you cope? Where do you turn when life begins to feel overwhelming?
There are many ways people deal with life. Some use unhealthy behavior like drug or alcohol abuse, inappropriate relationships, food, or other excessive actions. Some people cope by reaching out to friends or family, seeing a therapist, talking with a pastor. Something that is overlooked is meditation. I’m not talking about meditation as a form of avoidance or temporary relaxation technique. I’m talking about finding that quiet place to absorb the word of God. Pastor Richard Foster writes, “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind.”(1)
God often uses our meditation on his Word in Scripture to speak to us, encouraging us as we endure difficult situations, reminding us through his Word of his faithfulness and love, giving us hope for what is ahead. Reflecting on the Word is not simply for getting us through tough circumstances either. Meditating on God’s Word helps us to live continually in response to the living Word, Jesus Christ.
Here are a few suggested practices of meditating on God’s Word. As a reminder, we shouldn’t feel like we need to try all of the practices. Ultimately it is not about the practices, but about letting God do his work in growing our faith, hope and love as we focus on him and live in response to who he is and what he has done.
Memorization: Select a short passage to memorize. Allow the words to ruminate within you as you go throughout the day, repeating it several times to yourself. I’ve always struggled with this one but there are certain verses which I cling to and am thankful I can pull the words that have been embedded on my heart.
Pick a passage to read over or listen to several times. After the first reading, read it through again slowly, listening or watching for any words or phrases that stand out. Take note of the word or phrase and then read through the passage for a third time. How is God calling you to respond to his Word?
As you read through Scripture, jot something down that stood out to you and consider reflecting on it with someone else this week. What is God placing upon your heart through His word as you begin the first full week of Lent? If you’re honest with yourself, He’s probably calling you to come out of that comfort zone of lukewarmness.
(1) Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 17.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” — 2 Timothy 3:16-17
When something is address to us or directly impacts us, we typically give it our attention. We read through mail and emails addressed to us from people we know, whereas we are likely to trash that which is mass-marketed. This past week, we’ve closely followed weather predictions in our immediate area but probably are not aware of weather conditions in other areas. There is so much information to be processed that we often have to prioritize what we focus our attention on.
2 Timothy begins with an address, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, my dear son” (2 Tim. 1:1-2a). At first glance, it may appear like we are not the ones being addressed and therefore we do not need to prioritize the message that follows. As Christians though, we affirm the canon of Scripture, the Old and New Testament together, as being the word of God. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16-17, describes what this meant for early Christians and still means today — “that the reason the scriptures were alive was because God had ‘breathed’ them in the first place, and the warmth and life of that creative breath was still present and powerful.”(1) In other words, the Holy Spirit, who empowered Paul to write those words to Timothy, is the SAME Holy Spirit who enlivens those words today in addressing us. Scripture is not just some ancient book; it’s God’s self-revelation addressed to us through the Holy Spirit.
Christian author and lawyer Justin Earely provides an application of what it might look like to see Scripture as God’s address to us. “Refusing to check the phone until after reading a passage of Scripture is a way of replacing the question ‘What do I need to do today?’ with a better one, ‘Who am I and who am I becoming?’ We have no stable identity outside of Jesus.”(2)
What identity do you cling to most? Do you see scripture as just an ancient guidebook or a living letter through which God still speaks to you? Has God spoken loudly to you, calling you into a relationship with Him? Did you say “yes?”
(1) N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, 119.
“The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’ They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you 28 staying?’ ‘Come,’ he replied, ‘and you will see.’ So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. John 1:35-39
Relationships are hard. It’s even harder with quarantines, Zoom meetings, and text-only encounters. To really get to know someone, we have to spend time with them physically and emotionally. While we may learn something about someone through listening to the stories others tell of them, to really get to know them we have to hear from them directly.
Two of John’s followers in today’s text understood this. They were learning about Jesus through John’s teaching, but when Jesus himself passes by, they are quick to follow him and spend time with him. They were eager to directly interact with the living Word of God. Consider what pastor Adele Calhoun says relating this concept to Scripture for us today, “There are always other books to read and speakers to listen to. Of course, God does use books and people to speak to us. But Scripture is a primary way that the Holy Spirit opens us up to the God who is beyond us.”
We often think that God does not speak to us but we couldn’t be further from the truth. He speaks loudly through the scriptures. When Jesus was in the desert, he relied solely upon God’s word to fully sustain him and protect him. It’s the same word we have in our possession today. Wow!!
Consider these suggestions within the three categories of time, space and content as ways of fostering the practice of being present with the written Word of God:
Time: a) Read Scripture every day this week at a set time (ex. when you first get up, over your lunch break, before bed, etc.). b) When you read Scripture, set a timer for 15 min. (or more) to avoid feeling like you have to keep an eye on the time if you only have limited time available.
Space: a) Pick a spot that is mostly free from distraction. b) As you prepare to spend time with the written Word of God, take a few deep breaths. c) Light a candle as a reminder of God’s presence there with you.
Content: It can be intimidating to sit down with Scripture if you don’t know what to read or how much to read. Try following a reading plan, something that works for you. One good place to start is in the gospels. Consider taking 21 days to read through the gospel of John, a chapter a day.
As you develop this holy time with God, open your heart to the words and to the transformation that comes from abiding in the Word.
It is impossible to respond unless there is something to respond to. For instance, you can’t hit “reply” to a message you never received. It’s the same thing when you enter into worship. You can’t respond to God’s Word if His Word is never given. When I was leading worship, I would say to the people after the scripture reading, “This is the Word of God for the people of God.” They would respond, “Thanks be to God.” But what are we really referring to by the Word of God?
Scripture? Yes. But it’s more than that. We are referring to the person of Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
This Word is how God reveals himself to the world. As John points out, it is how God created the world and, as the rest of the gospel goes on to describe, it is how God reconciles the world to himself. Notice though that the Word in these opening verses feels other-worldly. It does not belong to this world, but is outside of it.
And then John 1:14 is presented to us and it changes everything! “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Word became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Word of God, God’s perfect self- expression. Scripture proclaims and ultimately points to Jesus Christ, God’s personal Word to all. Jesus, as the incarnate Word of God, and Scripture, as the written Word of God pointing to the incarnate, reveal to us who God is and who he has created us to be. While we are not able to see Jesus physically today, we still may know him through the Word of God, our Scripture, as his Spirit speaks in our hearts.
We are invited to respond to the Word in many different ways. But in order to do so, each of us must choose to say, “Yes.” Yes to the Word of God. Yes to salvation. Yes to suffering for the sake of Christ. Yes. Throughout this Lent season I will be making consistent invitations to you to say “Yes” to the Word- maybe for the first time or perhaps a renewal. And when you do, let me know so that your new journey is not one you do alone.
REFLECTION When have you had a spiritual experience as a result of responding to the Word of God?
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! — 2 Corinthians 5:17
Lent. Many Christians recognize Lent as the mark of Easter’s beginning. But truly it is that season where we are invited to both mourn and hope. It is a season of mourning as we wrestle with the cost and pain of our sin and brokenness. We hope as we see Christ victorious in his suffering and death. We mourn as we think of Jesus on the cross, bearing the weight of our sentences. We hope as we recall the empty tomb and our freedom from death. In reflecting back on the cross and looking forward to resurrection, we recognize that abiding in Christ shapes our lives in all things. As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.”
Faith, hope and love are the defining realities of this life as a new creation. That’s not to say that once we become followers of Christ, we live into the full expression of those virtues. Oh no. We fall short. We sin. But, those defining realities are given to us by the Holy Spirit. And it is through the Spirit that we grow as authentic disciples. As we look to Christ and seek to live in active response to him, we open ourselves up for the Spirit to work within us, nurturing our faith, hope and love.
In the midst of the pandemic and now this ice/snow storm, many may feel more mournful than hopeful. It’s easy to settle into those darker places, cocooning ourselves in the worldliness of despair. But Lent says, “No!” Lent says, “ hope is all around you because Christ has come and Christ is coming again!”
Spiritual practices can help to focus on the hope given to us through Jesus Christ. There is nothing magical about the spiritual practices themselves. On their own, they are powerless to provide meaningful transformation. But with God, He will use them to transform us into people of greater faith, hope and love. As we journey through Lent, reflecting on the cross and resurrection, let us be mindful of the hope found in the midst of the mourning.