10/20/13 Sermon (October 10, 2013) “Study: The Discipline of Discernment”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:16 AM by David Hawkins

10/20/13 Sermon (October 10, 2013)

“Study: The Discipline of Discernment”

Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 (Liturgist)

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

Sermon: “Study: The Discipline of Discernment”

For the months of September and October, we have been taking a look at the classical spiritual disciplines of the Christian Faith. We’ve looked at Humility, Simplicity, Confession, Perseverance, and Prayer. Next week we will finish this series by exploring the discipline of Fasting.

This week we see the Apostle Paul counseling his young protege Timothy to remember and to continue his study of the scriptures. As we’ve already seen, Timothy has been confronted with some sort of conflict in his congregation, a conflict that has shaken his own sense of his calling as a preacher and as a teacher.

There are people in his church who are spreading a different kind of Gospel, a Gospel that teaches that we are in charge of our own salvation, that we can obtain God’s blessing with the works we do and the words we say. It’s a tempting Gospel, a Gospel that puts us back into the driver’s seat, a Gospel that removes the mysterious workings of God’s Holy Spirit, and takes Jesus Christ out of the equation.

And so Paul is writing to encourage him to remain steadfast in what he believes, to not bend his words to his congregation in order to suit their desires. He is reminding Timothy of his tradition, and his faith, to hang on to that which has sustained him up until now.

Paul is writing to Timothy to think long and hard about what the scriptures say about things like salvation and faith and God and sin and redemption. And that his teaching won’t always please his congregation, that there will be times that his words will in fact cause people to reject both him and the message he brings.

But in spite of all this, Paul calls Timothy to preach and teach the words of Jesus Christ, who came to save the world. Our God, our Savior, who walked among us, who took the sins we could not give up on our own, who carried those sins to the cross, and who faithfully, and finally, died for those sins, in order that we might be free of them, forever, and ever, amen.

And these words that Paul writes to Timothy have deep resonance for us today. Even today, the debate rages about doctrine, about tradition, about faith, and about study. And the words of this scripture both encourage the curiosity of the faithful Christian, and stifle it. It has been both the inspiration and the bane of generations of scholars, and it has been cited for centuries for a reason to build schools and universities and to then to condemn the observations of the students who are trained there.

Because study is dangerous. When we study something, we are changed by it. Our minds are shaped by the the things we study, in the same ways our bodies are shaped by athletic training. And like physical training, study requires more from us than casual attention. It requires focus and energy.

Our French Exchange Student, Gabrielle, is taking an advanced English Class, and one of her textbooks is called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” The writer of the book encourages the student to look for motifs in the stories that symbolize different truths and ideas.

Because great literature depends on the reader to do their homework. The works of Shakespeare require the reader to know their Greek Mythology, in the same way that the writer of Hebrews expected his readers to know their Old Testament. Without this knowledge, both Shakespeare and the Preacher have written in vain.

Now don’t get me wrong. Simply reading the Bible is a good thing. In fact, reading the Bible is a great thing. But there is a difference between study and reading, in the same way that there is a difference between a football game and the week of three-hour football practices that precede it. Or the difference between a Band competition and the months of rehearsals spent in preparation.  

Study is hard work. Study is careful, detailed, objective exploration. Study is a return to the fundamentals, the practice of establishing disciplined habits of paying very close attention. And the study of God is not limited to the study of scripture. The study of God means the study of his Word, yes, of course, but the study of God also the study of his creation, as well as the study of his image in each other.

As the Psalmist tells us, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The study of God means the study of the universe, the study of how the world works, of how life exists, of how stars are born. They are telling us about nature of God.

And the study of God also means the study of the people around us. There is no knowledge of God without knowledge of mankind. And there is no knowledge of mankind without knowledge of God. This is the foundation of the two greatest commandments, loving God and loving neighbor. If we can’t love our neighbor, who we can see, how can we possibly love God, who we can’t? And how can we love our neighbors if we know nothing about them? Study is the key to understanding and loving our enemies, as well as our friends.

But the church has historically been reluctant to accept the results of such study. In the 16th Century, when Copernicus observed that the earth rotated around the sun, instead of the other way around, he was condemned.

And it wasn’t just the Catholic Church that condemned Copernicus. Nearly all the Protestant Theologians of his time agreed that the earth, in fact, did not move, ti was the center of the universe. Among them were both Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Now, of course, there were good reasons for disagreeing with Copernicus, and they were scripturally based. Psalm 104 plainly states that the world does not move. Ecclesiastes plainly states that it is the sun that moves from place to place, not the earth. And so the Church had scripture on its side. Its doctrine was scripturally supported. And yet, the church was wrong.

Now, the church wasn’t wrong in the fact that scripture said those things. The Church was wrong in the conclusions  it drew from those scriptures. Because the reality is, no matter how much we want to, not matter how much easier it would be, not matter how much we are told by our fundamentalist brethren, we simply cannot take scripture literally.

For instance, no matter how many times it says so in the Bible, God is not, in fact, a literal rock. Nor is God literally a tower, or a fortress, or an eagle. Jesus is not literally a vine, and we are not literally branches. Yet, there is still truth in these images. God is a rock. Jesus is a vine. Do you see what I mean?

The Bible is full of metaphors, similes, analogies, poems, stories, and songs that all seek to describe the nature of God. But the Bible is not scientific fact, nor was it ever meant to be.  Science describe the what and the how of the universe; the Bible describes the who and the why. There’s a difference. And it’s a big one.

And so, the question is, how do we go about the process of figuring out what is literal, and what is poetic? What is specific to a particular context, and what is universal? How do we discern the the overarching threads of the Bible that connect us to the faithful of every time and place, while recognizing that the Bible was written by hundreds of authors over hundreds of years, and we live in a different culture and period of history?

A disciplined study of the Bible takes the scripture apart, and examines it from every perspective, in the same way a jeweller looks at a diamond from every angle. Study asks difficult questions: Who wrote this? When did they write it? To whom was it written? Why was it written? What was the context in which it was written? How is that context different than the one in which we read it now? In what language was it written? What are the linguistic problems involved in translation? How are these problems resolved?  

Now, the reality is that the idea of study has fallen on hard times these days. The idea of a rigorous, critical, disciplined examination of the linguistic, literary and historical context of scripture is kind of looked down upon. As though through the process of really learning what the Bible says, and why it says it, somehow diminishes the faith of the person studying it. As though the process of really engaging the Bible with one’s whole mind is somehow not a spiritual act.

But this is ridiculous. Does getting to know your wife or husband better throughout a 25 year marriage somehow diminish your love for them? Well, maybe that’s a bad example. Don’t answer that, Karen!

How about this: Does learning about how light is refracted as it travels through the atmosphere somehow diminish the beauty of a Texas sunset? Or take away the wonder of a double rainbow after a spring thunderstorm?

Study enhances, rather than diminishes our appreciation of the mysteries surrounding the nature of God.

But there is, I think, these days, a deep suspicion of those who endeavour to really dig into the depths of the Bible. Many religious denominations do not require any education whatsoever of their ordained clergy. And even among those who do require some education, hardly any require language study. As though the discipline of learning what the Bible actually says in the original Hebrew or Greek is not worth the effort. Or that education is secondary to what one feels in one’s heart to be true.

But without the effort of study, we find ourselves at the mercy of those who talk the loudest, who pray the longest, who claim the greatest revelation, and especially, those who say the things we most want to hear. As Paul tells Timothy, our ears are itchy, and we are drawn to a Gospel that makes us feel good about ourselves, that satisfies our own cravings for a message of good news thats just for us, a Gospel that excludes others, and reinforces what we already think about the world.

Study is the antidote to a superficial, self-centered theology. It draws us out of our comfortable places, and puts us in uncharted waters. Study refreshes the mind, and stirs the imagination. It reminds of our roots, and points us to the heavens. Study of the Word of God is the food for our souls, the manna of our minds. It is the essence of seeking the face of God, in our world, in our neighbor, and in our hearts.

So, I encourage all of us to study. Read a challenging book. Entertain, if only for moment, a different perspective. Read the scripture like theologian. Not all the time, of course, but often enough to be changed by new truths that might be found there. Do some research. Go to Sunday School! We have some great classes that challenge all of us to think deeply about who we are, and who God is.

Above, don’t ever think that you’ve learned enough. That you are through learning. Because none of us have reached that point. All of us are called, like Timothy, to continue in what we’ve learned, to continue to seek the truth about God’s nature and plan for his people. God’s mercies are new every morning. And we can never learn too much about that.

Thanks be to God. Amen.