“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”
There is something serendipitous about Valentine’s Day and the first Sunday in Lent occurring on the same day. It’s kind of like God is giving us a free pass to nosh on the chocolate without the guilt. Let us remember that every Sunday is a mini Easter, a time fit for feasting.
Traditionally, Lent is about sacrifice and giving something up. But the way I see it, as many of you know, Lent is about the feast, not the fast. The gospel this morning reminds us that Jesus is famished, having spent 40 days out in the wilderness fasting and praying. He’s hungry because he’s human. And like us, he too is tempted to nourish himself with things that seem harmless and good: bread, power, and protection from death. Jesus fights off such temptation by feasting on something different: the very words of God.
For some of us words come easily. For others, not so much. We all have struggled once in our life to find the right words to say especially when we love someone or have hurt them.
I just found out that the greeting card industry sells over 1 billion cards a year because of our inability to articulate, “I love you,” or “I’m sorry.” 150 million of those cards are bought right before Valentine's Day. Our Puritan forefathers wrote their own Valentines Day messages. Here are just a few examples.
“Roses are Red, Violets are blue. And neither are useful or necessary at all.” Another one reads, “You almost make my heart dance. And dancing is forbidden.” Some of you couples here might enjoy this one, “Being with you fills me with impure thoughts, and I am ashamed.” And my favorite, “I need you to help me raise livestock and crops or surely we will starve to death come winter.”
The Puritans had a unique way of reading the Word of God and interpreting the Bible that is very different than how we might read it today. But they, like Jesus and Paul, understood the importance of the Scriptures and applying as a guide for living life in faithfulness to God.
While it's typical of the church to kick off Lent with the story Jesus in the wilderness, I'd rather look at the words of Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome, which has much to teach us too about living in God’s word. Hidden inside this theologically dense letter, we discover how Paul’s mind and faith are profoundly shaped and strengthened by his deep understanding with the Old Testament, and the grand narrative of the people of Israel. Much like Jesus in the wilderness, Paul uses his knowledge of the scriptures to defend his position against the Jews who have yet to believe Jesus is the promised Messiah.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Let’s go back to Romans 10:8. Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” Here he is reworking a passage from Deuteronomy 30, where Moses speaks to the people about the accessibility of the law, he says it is not out of reach in heaven and beyond. Instead it’s here,...in our faith...which is in heart and on our lips.
Our salvation is still accessible, Paul states, through the proclamation of Christ, and believing that God raised him from the dead. Paul then goes on to quote from Isaiah 28, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” To reinforce this proclamation, Paul recalls the words of the prophet Joel, who had already written, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
In reading the words of Paul we discover a deeper sense of the Word of God. We begin to see how the promise God made to Israel is the same promise God keeps with us. Moreover, Paul’s great understanding teaches us that God’s word is God’s word, no matter what. It remains true and faithful, even if we are not.
On this first Sunday in Lent, we are called to feast on the spiritual practice of reading and meditating the holy scriptures. Like going to the gym to work out our muscles, or signing up for Luminosity to improve the function of our brain, if we don’t use it, we might lose it.
If we are going to call ourselves Christians, don't you think we ought to know, and understand, what that word means? God has given us his word to save us, but it is up to us to write them on our hearts and minds. Jesus and Paul both teach us that we must be intimate with these words and make them a part of our everyday life if we are going to use them to stay faithful to God.
While reading and meditating on scripture is a wonderful spiritual practice, Jesus warns us that to memorize Bible verses, without allowing the love of God to be written on our hearts, is work even the devil can do. It’s imperative that we allow the message, and its meaning, to sink deeply into us. We need to soak in it, like a good dry rub or a sweet marinade.
Jesus called us to become that message, and become that meaning, by becoming the living breath of God’s word. Too often churches succumb to the temptation to use the Scriptures as proof text, to justify their opinion or to exclude people they deem unworthy. This does very little in fulfilling the Good News. And more likely, it pushes people away from embracing it.
I believe the Bible is God’s sacred and holy words, but certainly not God’s last word. I believe that if we are to use the scriptures properly, we must understand this one very important point: the Bible is not God’s final word. God didn’t speak them into creation and simply walk away. God’s word is alive and living. It moves in us, around us, and through us.
When it’s written on our hearts, it pumps through our entire being. When it is written on our lips it moves in and out of every conversation. God’s Word is active, not passive. It’s holistic and life giving. It shifts and changes and grows with us and beyond us. Therefore, we must not use God’s words to close off conversations, but instead proclaim it to keep the conversation going. This is hard to do if we do not know what those words are, much less understand what they mean?
Many here have confessed to me that you don't read the bible for one reason or another, “I don't have time,” “All those people are confusing,” “It's too hard to follow.” I get it. I've been there and made those excuses too. Like you I struggle with it. But I also struggle with life. Yet knowing how to navigate through the difficult situations of life, has helped me become better at controlling my actions in me and around me. Reading and meditating on God's word does just the same thing for us.
So let me reiterate once again the importance of this daily spiritual practice: When we read the word of God we know how to live as Jesus taught us to live. When we stand firm on the promises of these words we don't succumb to the temptations that pull us away from being in a faithful relationship with God.
When we are intimate in God’s word, we begin to understand where God has called us to be, where God wants us to go, and how to get there. Most importantly it teach us how to express ourselves in a manner that shows our love for God and neighbor.
This is the Good News which Jesus brought to us. News that is worthy of our time to read. And so I invite you, this Lenten season, to marinate and meditate in the truth by which we stand.
With God’s word implanted in our hearts and minds, we have a better understanding of our faith, and the important role Jesus plays in our lives, both for today and towards a greater tomorrow.
With God’s word in our mind...we begin to speak effortlessly of God’s love for all.
Which means we are able to practice freely the promise of God’s grace and salvation given to us through Jesus Christ, the living, breathing Word incarnate, who reminds us that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Bible, NRSV. Luke 4:1-13; Romans 10:8-13.
Bartlett, David L, Barbara Brown Taylor. ed. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Byassee, Jason. "Temptation to Cheat." Sojourners, Feb 2016: 48.
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An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”