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Jan 11 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

How to Read the Sacred Writings – January 10, 2021



Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest”
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be,
declares the LORD.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word.
Isaiah 66:1-2

Intro: This week Calum, my eight year old grandson, asked to play games on my phone. When I told him the battery was running low, he said, “Let’s see how much battery is left.” He then took my phone, swiped down from the battery icon, and up popped a display of various apps and their status. Surprised, I said, “Wait! how did you do that?” Smirking, he asked, “Grandpa, how long have you had this phone?”

– I admit, that I do not access ninety-nine percent of what my phone can do
• in a similar way, we never access as much help as the Bible has to offer us
• we struggle with the Bible because we don’t know how to read it
– last week, we reminded ourselves that the Scriptures are sacred writings
• that tells us something about how to read scripture
• the big idea today is that we need to
Read the Sacred Writings with Reverence

In the Isaiah passage, God answers an intriguing question

What draws God’s attention to a person (in a positive way)?
– immediately, we can delete any answer having to do with achievements
• that is, given what God has made and what belongs to him
• God is not impressed with the mansions of the wealthy,
◦ the accomplishments of “successful” people, or “winners”
◦ all through Isaiah’s prophecies, God takes aim at arrogance and conceit
The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
For the LORD of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low (Isa. 2:11-17)
Isaiah is explaining that God will level anything that breaks the line of the horizon, and his list of exalted things includes the cedars of Lebanon, the oaks of Bashan, the lofty mountains, all high towers and fortifications, and tall-mast ships
– what draws God’s attention is the person who is:
humble, broken, and that trembles at his word
• in the Old Testament, the word of LORD was considered a divine force
◦ it was the creative power of God
◦ God’s word made things and it made things happen
• many times people who heard it responded with absolute seriousness
◦ at Mt. Sinai, Elijah in the desert, King Josiah hearing the Book of the Covenant read, the returned exiles in Nehemiah chapter 8
◦ it is not that God wants us to be terrified of him or his word,
◦ but he wants us to know our place and to take him seriously

At this point, it may help if we revisit the word “sacred”

For now, dictionary definitions will not suit our purpose
– we need to think about what is like to experience the sacred

My wife, Barbara, grew up in a Lutheran church. In the front of the sanctuary there were three steps that led up to a platform, and on the platform was a low wall or altar rail. In front of the altar was a candle that always burned. The pastor explained that it represented God’s everlasting light. Barbara learned from her mother to always respect the sacredness of the flame and what it symbolized.
While in junior high school, Barbara belonged to the church’s youth group. After their evening meetings, while waiting for their parents to pick them up, she and the other kids would play tag, hide-and-seek, or other games outside the church. One night, she slipped into the sanctuary through a side door, thinking it would be a good place to hide. Once inside, she noticed the change of atmosphere from that outside, and that this environment was silent, still, and engulfed in darkness except for the soft glow around the “everlasting light.” Assuming that this would be the perfect opportunity to take a close look at the candle, she moved toward the platform, but when she placed her foot on the first step, she sensed an overwhelming presence and this realization, “This place is holy.” Reverently she stopped, then slowly backed away. Later she described what she felt in that moment as “a good fear.”

• the feeling evoked by a close encounter with the sacred is reverence
◦ the Bible usually uses “fear” for reverence, but it doesn’t mean “scared”
◦ reverence is not like being afraid of an abusive parent
◦ it doesn’t mean frightened, terrified, or any kind of phobia
• it is what we might think of as a healthy respect
◦ the caution we practice around power tools
(It’s possible to repair a “live” electrical switch,
but don’t try it if you don’t know what you’re doing!)
◦ reverence is mixture of fear and fascination;
of risk and a desire to get closer

Awhile back, a friend of mine was trying to grasp the meaning of sacred, and what it would feel like to experience holiness. One night in a Bible study he said, “I get it now. If someone handed me a book, and while I held it they told me it was the Satanic Bible, I would put it down immediately. I would not want to touch or even be near the thing!”

– he was talking about experiencing something more than the book
• the feeling he referred to is fright,
◦ and it is caused by things that are spooky
• unlike fright, reverence is a positive experience
◦ reverence it what we feel when we encounter that which is truly sacred

We have to learn what reverence is, because it goes unrecognized

Reverence rarely appears in mass culture
Paul Woodruff, “I believe reverence gives meaning to much that we do, yet the word has almost passed out of our vocabulary.”
– reverence isn’t nurtured in schools, corporations, or the media
• movies are sometimes advertised as “an irreverent comedy”
◦ what can you say regarding a culture in which irreverence is an art form?
• we’ve given comedians plenty of material to roast Christians and their leaders
◦ but they sometimes cross the line – blasphemy isn’t funny
– irreverence is blind to many things:
• the value of other lives (God’s covenant with “every living creature”)
◦ to what nature’s beauty, untouched, does for the human soul
◦ to the importance of being faithful to treaties and commitments
◦ to what is sacred to other people – e.g., their beliefs, traditions, rituals
• irreverence diminishes the experience of everyday life
Henri Nouwen, “The issue is no longer how to express the mystery of God to people who are no longer accustomed to the traditional language of church or synagogue; the issue is whether there is anything in our world that we can call ‘sacred.’ Is there among the things we do, the people we know, the events we read about in the newspapers or watch on TV, someone or something that transcends it all and has the inner quality of sacredness, of being holy, worthy of adoration and worship?”

There’s another reason reverence is vanishing and we’re to blame
– we realize it is wrong for Christians to think they are better than others
• our concern is valid concern – but how we deal with that is also a concern
◦ one response has been to erase the distinction between sacred and secular
◦ but the result is not that all of life becomes sacred,
◦ but just the opposite; all of life becomes secular
• God upheld the holy/unholy distinction from Moses to Ezekiel
◦ sacred applies to the realm of the transcendent;
secular applies to the world of material things
◦ “secular humanism” is respect for life apart from acknowledging God
“sacred humanism” begins with God and our being made in his image
Paul Woodruff, “Reverence requires us to maintain a modest sense of the difference between human and divine.”
– in our world, living in complete secularism is all too easy
• as always, living by faith is the challenge
Henri Nowen, “Maybe the distinction between secular and sacred can be bridged when they have both been identified as aspects of every person’s experience of being human.”

Many people have yet to rediscover reverence

Maybe that is included in what Jesus meant by us becoming like a child

I have a friend who is a Russian pastor. He first contacted me after reading There Is A Season. He felt that Russian pastors needed to hear the message of that book and asked if it was alright with me if he translated it into Russian. Sometime later, Slava came to California with his wife Olga and their daughter Nastia. While staying with Barb and I for a few days, we took them to Disneyland. We had a full day in the part, and after the sun went down, there was a spectacular presentation as well-known storybook characters acted out scenes from Disney movies on a huge screen of water. I wondered what seven year old Nastia thought of all this. When I looked, she was sitting on her father’s shoulders, her eyes wide, her mouth open and her face frozen in wonder. Her expression was beautiful and unforgettable. I do not know if she felt reverence, but what she did feel was close to it

– I tried to think of an example of reverence most of us could appreciate
• what came to mind, was being present for birth of your child
◦ I mentioned this to friends in a Zoom meeting last week
◦ one woman said that the hushed tone of her husband’s voice was totally different
◦ then she added, “I also felt reverence when my mom passed”
◦ I remembered feeling the same, sitting my my dad when he breathed his last breath
Jon Kabat-Zinn asks, What is “spiritual”? Science? Taking a walk, painting, playing music? “Obviously, it all depends on how you encounter it, how you hold it in awareness.”
• reverence can be evoked by anything that astonishes us
◦ by immensity – Grand Canyon or the ocean (infinity or eternity)
◦ there is always a transcendent sense, of something more that is present
◦ it overwhelms – it is veiled in mystery

I do not believe we can make ourselves feel reverence

But we can work on being aware of it when it comes
– we can remind ourselves of the sacredness of moments
• of sacred spaces and sacred events
• like baptism, Communion, weddings, and memorials
Paul Woodruff, “Without reverence, rituals are empty.”
– when we experience reverence, we can surrender to it
• reverence naturally draws us to our here and now experience
◦ it tends to elicit a physical response; we bow, remove our sandals, sigh
◦ silence and stillness are tied to reverence
◦ we go speechless, because our experience cannot be put into words

Reverence evokes a constellation of feelings
– humility, it because changes our perception, giving us a sense of proportion
• a subtle and ineffable joy is another common feeling in reverence
◦ a sense of privilege, “Lord, it is good that we are here” (Mt. 17:4)
(Of course Peter could not keep quiet. Mark explains that Peter said this because he did not know what to say. And while he was still speaking a voice from the cloud said, This is my beloved Son; listen to him)
• of course, reverence includes feelings of awe and wonder
◦ there is another feeling we may not have expected,
◦ and that is love — that we are loved and that love is flowing through us

Conclusion: In the sacred writings we encounter God

Hans Ur von Balthasar, “Here and now . . . this encounter is to take place. At this moment in time God’s revelation is addressed, not to people in general, but to me. The light of God’s loving choice falls on me. Christ is born for me. He dies on the cross for me. . . . I need to have a most vivid sense of this here-and-now uniqueness.”
– when Moses was given instructions for the sanctuary,
• God explained that the entrance of the tent was
where I will meet with you, to speak to you there (Ex. 29:43)
Robert Alter, “The gates are the threshold, the point where the pilgrim crosses from the zone of the profane into the sacred precincts of the temple.”
• when I sit down to read my Bible in the morning,
◦ I remind myself of this verse
◦ I inhale and pause in the threshold of breathing in and out
◦ I remind myself that I’m about to step into sacred space of God’s word

I want to be there, in reverence
Reading the sacred writings with reverence,
we receive them into a deeper place in our souls,
a place where they can do the most good
Reverence waters the seed of the word in the soil of our hearts

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