Eat this Book + study q's

Published: Monday, 09 April 2018

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at ABC on 8 April 2018. It is the first in a series on reading the Bible entitled, ‘Eat this Book’. The sermon manuscript concludes with some questions for personal reflection and group discussion.

Scripture Reading: Revelation 10: 8 - 11

Walking through Italy last year we entered into the town of Pavia, 35 kilometres south west of Milan.

We headed for a church called ‘St Peter in the Golden Sky’,[1] which houses the body of Augustine, the fourth century teacher and theologian. The relics and memorabilia refreshed the story of how this North African playboy left his homeland (modern day Algeria) to head for the bright party lights of Italy. But in his new country he came under the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.

Augustine later writes in his Confessions, “The evil in me was foul but I loved it.” He said: “I prayed, ‘Lord, give me chastity but not yet’.”

One afternoon when he was wrestling with his thoughts and walking in a garden he heard the sing-song voice of a child saying, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” On a table he saw a copy of the Scriptures. He picked it up and his eyes fell on these verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans (13: 13-14):

“Let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

He later wrote, "No further did I read; nor did I need to: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infusing my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away."[2]

The rest they say is history. This conversion sent shockwaves through his being. Augustine went on to be one of the most influential thinkers and teachers in the early church.

 

So often the taking and reading of the Bible has been the means of that initial conversion.

So often the taking and reading of the Bible has been the vehicle of ongoing transformation.

It’s no surprise that John in the last book of the Bible hears a similar voice saying ‘Go, take up the scroll’ and when he responds positively, he hears the voice say:

‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ 10So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

Since the days of John and Augustine, something revolutionary has happened. The only place people used to hear the Scriptures was in the Jewish temple and synagogues on the Sabbath and in the churches on Sunday.

These days, everyone can not only have the Scriptures, we can have them in our own language. Think of all the versions on your book shelves—King James Version, New Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Version, the Gideon’s Bible, lots of study Bibles. We’ve got Bible apps on our phones and the Bible delivered in word, print or audio.

The question is: “With such a Scriptural banquet, are we taking up God’s word? Are we reading it more? Are we eating this book?”

Our passage likens the reading of the Scripture to taking food into our bodies. This makes us think of a daily, regular intake. Eating this book is not something we should do sparingly or sporadically.

This image makes us think more of what we have experienced today[3]—not fast food and fast eating but the slow, nourishing intake whereby the food becomes part of us. The food energises us. The food sustains us. The food builds bones and muscles. The food is essential to our growth.

John describes his experience of eating the Scriptural scroll:

10So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

When we ‘Eat this Book’, we too will find it, like John and the Psalmist before him, to be as sweet as honey. I wonder which parts of the scroll he was referring to?

Perhaps it was the slice of the scroll that goes:

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything that I need.” (Ps 23) Isn’t that sweet?

“You will keep them in perfect peace, whose minds are stayed on You: because they trust in You.” (Isaiah 26:3) Taste the honey? That is sweet!

I was visiting Melva [a parishioner in hospital] this week and I asked: “Is there a passage that you love,” and she mentioned a few and then she said ‘Psalm 139’. She quoted:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

How sweet are those words!

Then like the prophets, we might find that the word can be bitter. Amos found that the Lord was roaring like a lion. The prophets like Jeremiah found the word burned within them like a fire. Sometimes they recoiled from passing it on. It was fierce. It was bitter.

Sometimes the Scripture that tastes like honey, through further savouring becomes bitter. At first it was attractive and tasty. We can’t get enough of it. But the more it gets inside us, it can make us uncomfortable. Initially it satisfied our mouth hunger but later it gave us a gut ache.

We won’t always enjoy our reading and meditation on God’s word. Like young children we may say, “I like the mash potatoes, the peas, carrots and gravy and meat but I don’t like the silver beet. I don’t like the onion. I don’t like the mushrooms.”

And the wise parents might say, “Try a little. It’s good for you. You may get to like it one day.”

‘Eat this Book’. This is an injunction. It is not a command like ‘Eat up your spinach’, but like the word that came to Augustine, ‘Take Up and Read’, for we will find this word is good news. It will be life changing. Not always dramatic change but surely change that’s slow and steady, change that makes us grow in our faith, hope and love.

So how will we ‘Eat this Book’? We’ve recently given Bibles to those of our young people moving into the teenage years. How will they read it? Where is the manual?

In Peter’s first letter to the scattered Christians he writes:

Like newborn babes, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— (1 Peter 2:2)

Think of a little baby (Tobias, whom we have earlier in the service welcomed to our ABC community). We don’t cook up a steak and potatoes for him to eat for he is young. Newborn. You start them off with milk.

Paul in a note of exasperation writes to the Corinthian Christians:

I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready.

(1 Corinthians 3:2)

So, the biblical writers recognize there are parts of Scripture that are easy, sections that introduce us to the ABC’s and, if we are new to spiritual things it might be good to start with Mark’s Gospel. As we grow and develop we can eat the parts of the Book that are more solid and substantial.

We never say to our children: “Here’s the fridge and the pantry. Help yourself. Eat whatever you want. Ice cream and cream cakes for breakfast every morning if you like. Go for it.”

No, we think about nutrition. We encourage a balanced diet, that will build muscle and provide us with the necessary nutrients for life and health.

One useful Internet site is Bible Gateway[4] and this can help us read the Bible in so many different translations. Maybe this is a good idea if we’re making a new start. Read the Bible in a fresh, new translation.

So instead of reading the familiar words in Romans 12: 2: “Don’t be conformed to this world” (NRSV), we might be startled to read this fresh translation: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold.”

The Bible Gateway site offers a host of Bible Reading Plans which are like daily menus.

One gives us a passage from the Old Testament and the New Testament every day.

There are plans which can take us through from Genesis to Revelation.

There are intensive reading plans that can take us through the entire Bible in 90 days or the Gospels in 40 days.

There’s a daily audio Bible if you prefer to hear it in your car.

There are Daily Bible readings that follow the church year.

But as we’ve been learning today, it’s not about quantity—reading the Bible as fast as we can, but slow, prayerful, chewing the cud, reflective reading.

Finally, the Eating of this Book must lead to action:

John says:

11 Then they said to me, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.’

What is our eating of this book going to do in our lives? This is the thing that bothered Mark Twain when he said:

“It is not the things which I don’t understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand.”[5]

The things that are so clear and unmistakable, which call for a response.

Many have remembered this week that last Wednesday (4 April) was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr.

So many articles have been written and speeches given this week, discussing King’s legacy, what we have learned in these five decades and postulating how he might have viewed the state of politics and race relations today.

What has often been forgotten in these discussions, has been the role of Scripture in shaping this leader. The influence of the Bible on his persuasive speeches.

The young preacher had just finished several years studying the Bible and thinking theology for his doctoral degree. He’d just got married and when he and Coretta settled in Montgomery, Alabama, he just wanted to be a family man. He simply wanted to learn what it was to be a pastor at the Dexter Street Baptist Church.

When, some months later, the call came to be spokesperson of the bus boycotts and the civil rights movement, he was a reluctant starter. He said he felt like Simon of Cyrene, pressganged into taking up this cross of service.

To remember words and phrases such as ‘civil rights’ and ‘justice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ are all accurate but they are incomplete.[6]

Martin Luther King’s years as a student of the Bible and his vocation as a Baptist preacher are too often assigned as a footnote of history rather than seen as a preamble to all that he was and is.

He didn’t get his thoughts and ideas from the Republican or Democratic party manuals. His vision was infused by the prophets of Scripture. He quoted from Amos:

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24).

His dream for equality and freedom came from the teaching of Jesus and God’s love and welcome to every person regardless of the colour of their skin.

His emphasis and action on non-violent protest, loving your enemy, hating war and how we might have ‘the strength to love’ come right out of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

Fifty years on we recognize how the Scriptures and the voice of Jesus powered his cause. We celebrate significant lives like his by reading God’s word, eating God’s word, living God’s word and giving our lives in the doing of God’s word.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Have you ever had an Augustine-like experience in which you have read a passage of Scripture that ‘infused your heart’ and turned your life around? Share your story.

“These days, everyone can not only have the Scriptures, we can have them, in our own language. Think of all the versions on your book shelves—King James Version, New Revised Standard version, Jerusalem Version, the Gideon’s Bible, lots of study Bibles, we got Bible apps on our phones and the Bible delivered in word, print or audio.”

“With such a Scriptural banquet, are we taking up God’s word? Are we reading it more?” Are we eating this book?”

Our passage likens the reading of the Scripture to taking food into our bodies. What does this image say to you?

At our worship service on 8 April, Peter Bentley creatively introduced the ancient practice of the Lectio Divina and he had framed the worship service so that we experienced the following movements:

Lectio (reading, listening, seeing, noticing, feeling etc.),

Meditatio (reflecting, mulling over, chewing on, noticing at new depths),

Oratio (praying, giving voice to, challenging, making sense of),

Contemplatio (stopping and listening to God, noticing what we are being invited to do or not do, letting come new perspectives on what we have noticed),

Operatio (acting out of the invitation of God, responding in love, hope and faith) and

Collatio (integrating the new perspectives, ideas and actions into our lived experiences).

If you were at this service, which phase or experience came to you with new power?

Which of these stages challenges you because you neglect it in your reading or it attracts you to try to do this more?

John describes his experience of eating the Scriptural scroll:

10So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

Which are the sweet verses of the Bible to your taste?

Which are the bitter verses of the Bible to your taste?

How have you found sweet passages turning bitter?

If a person says that they don’t enjoy reading the Bible any longer or they get bored, what would you suggest they do to make their experience more satisfying and sustaining?

A young person or a new believer is presented with a new Bible and says to you, “How do I read this book?” How would you respond?

In Peter’s first letter to the scattered Christians he writes:

Like newborn babes, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— (1 Peter 2:2)

Where are the milky parts of the Bible and how best are these ingested?

What Bible Reading Plan are you following or is there a fresh plan that you’d like to give a go?

John says:

11 Then they said to me, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.’

How can we best ensure that the eating of the book is followed by the doing of God’s word?

 

[1] ‘San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro’, Wikipedia.

[2] Augustine, Confessions 2nd edition.

[3] Peter Bentley had creatively introduced the ancient practice of the Lectio Divina and he had framed the worship service so that we experienced the following movements: Lectio (reading, listening, seeing, noticing, feeling etc.), Meditatio (reflecting, mulling over, chewing on, noticing at new depths), Oratio (praying, giving voice to, challenging, making sense of), Contemplatio (stopping and listening to God, noticing what we are being invited to do or not do, letting come new perspectives on what we have noticed), Operatio (acting out of the invitation of God, responding in love, hope and faith) and Collatio (integrating the new perspectives, ideas and actions into our lived experiences).

[4] Bible Gateway.

[5] Quote Investigator, 22 September 2017.

[6] These thoughts are prompted and enriched by Gregory Sterling’s article, ‘The Politically Progressive Faith of Martin Luther King’, New York Times, April 3 2018.