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John 1:1-14 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
We are continuing our series focusing on being grateful. Last week we focused on how grateful we are to be together. As a reminder, I said the kids would be joining us in worship starting this week. So this is the week you can start learning their names, making them feel at home in this church, and thus being part of their discipleship journey one little smile at a time. Those smiles add up over the years to become a witness to Christ.
This week we are grateful for the Word of God. We heard in our first reading that Jesus is the Word of God personified. Since we don’t quite have him wandering about where we can see him, the Bible as the written Word of God is the clearest view we have of God. In our main text today, the Apostle Paul summarizes the key points of Scripture – the written Word of God. This is the Cliff’s Notes version of the Bible right here! So let’s hear from Paul how he would summarize the most important aspects of the story of God as revealed in Jesus.
1 Corinthians 15:1-21 – Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
I was at a leadership workshop many years ago, and one of the activities they had us do involved way-finding with a compass. Now, I’ve never been a Boy Scout. But I did have to learn basic compass navigation for my SCUBA license. As the attendees started the way-finding exercise, we clearly divided into three groups.
One group quickly went off on their own. They marched off from the rest of the group confidently. In the wrong direction. They didn’t know how to use the compass, but at least they were very self-assured.
The second group knew how to use a compass, but they didn’t bother with the instructions that listed how many steps to take in a given direction. They found a landmark in the general direction we were told to go, and they walked to it without counting steps or bothering with the details.
The third group followed the directions to the letter. Southwest heading, fifteen paces. Check. North heading, twenty-two paces. Check. Any guesses which group I was in? Yeah, group three.
Obviously, the three groups landed in three different spots. Group two was at a statue. Group three – my compadres – was standing in the middle of the parking lot. And poor, wayward group one was wondering why the instructions were taking them into the middle of a busy street. This led to some interesting conversations and lessons learned.
Group one learned that sometimes you need to admit you don’t know what you’re doing and trust other people.
Group two’s approach was great if you want to get somewhere interesting, but it doesn’t matter exactly where you wind up.
And group three’s approach was great if you need a technical, specific answer or landing spot.
For our purposes today, it’s interesting to note that everyone had the same compass and same instructions. Yet we wound up in different spots because we had different understandings of how to use a compass – sorry group one – or different ways of interpreting the instructions.
And I think that’s kind of a useful parable about how different groups of Christians try to understand and follow the Word of God. Some are attuned to how God speaks through the traditions of the church. Some believe God speaks primarily through designated church leaders. Some believe God primarily speaks through revelation of the Holy Spirit – that’s kind of like group two finding landmarks and going there regardless of the details. Some believe God primarily speaks through the Bible – the written words are applicable and alive today. Some believe God speaks through our experiences, or groups of people, or in silence.
Like the three compass groups, the way we believe God speaks will affect where we wind up. And this is where I say I’m a bit Presbycostal. I have a very Presbyterian, Bible-centric approach. I’m also open to the Holy Spirit doing something or saying something completely unexpected. But I do believe the Holy Spirit always speaks in a way that is consonant with Jesus as revealed in the Bible. So, to return to those compass groups, I try to be a group three person wherever possible. I follow the written Word of God closely. But if the Holy Spirit puts a spotlight on a new landmark, let’s go there with trust and faith like group two did. If the Holy Spirit gives me a name, I’m going to pray for them or call them or both.
I’ve shared this before, but it’s still the best analogy I have for my approach to Scripture. I picture our solar system, and the sun is the Son of God – Jesus. Everything orbits around the Son. Everything is defined by its relation to the Son. So I try to trace ideas across their whole orbit – from Creation through the Old Testament to the life of Jesus to the rest of the New Testament and finally to the final Redemption at the end of time. But the most important aspect of everything in the Bible is how it is affected by and relates to Jesus, the Son.
The easiest example is the stuff about sacrifices in the Old Testament. If you just read some snapshots from the Old Testament, you might wonder why we’re not sacrificing doves and goats. That was one point on the orbit, but not the whole path. If you keep reading, you find out that Jesus was the final sacrifice making us right with God forever. So the orbit of the sacrifices in the Old Testament plunges into the sun, never to be seen again. They found their fulfillment in Jesus. They’re done! That’s their full orbit.
Other things were just fundamentally altered by Jesus’ gravity. We see in our text today that the nature of the Messiah, the Savior, was one of those things fundamentally altered by Jesus’ gravity. Everyone thought the Messiah was going to be a political king who restored the nation of Israel to a position of power. The faithful would have power, and the faithless would be put in their place. That’s what the religious scholars thought. That’s what everyone thought.
But Jesus specifically rejected that. John 6:15 says, “When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.” Instead, Jesus defined the Messiah, the Savior, as the one who died for us, who was buried for us, who was raised in power for us! No one saw that coming until they saw what Jesus actually did and said.
After the fact, as Paul mentions in our text today, they were able to go back and see the true nature of the Scriptures. “Oh, that’s what Isaiah meant!” The gravity of Jesus fundamentally altered how we understand the role of the Savior.
So, to return to the compasses, the Bible is my set of instructions. Jesus is my compass. And the Holy Spirit sometimes corrects my course by highlighting landmarks and other things I couldn’t see.
So I firmly believe that just because I think something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because I feel something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because I “know” something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. I have to check my instructions. I have to check my compass. I have to check the spotlight of the Holy Spirit.
For example, what if I told you that the Holy Spirit spoke to me and told me that we need a zip line from the balcony so I can enter the Sanctuary in style. Would you buy that? I think we have room in the Properties budget! No! Just because you think it or feel it or “know” it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Jesus defines what’s true, and we know Jesus primarily through the Bible.
My younger son loves Legos. And he’s pretty good at following the directions. But we used to let him build his sets while watching a show on the iPad. Our thought was that we were converting screen time to Lego time, so it was a win. But that also meant that the Lego sets were put together incorrectly. He would get distracted and not check the directions as often or as carefully. Sometimes that didn’t really matter, but other times a critical piece would be missing.
In the same way, the more we are reading and reflecting and praying on the Bible, the more we’re checking the instructions and the more we can check our thoughts and feelings and the things “we just know to be true” against the actual Word of God. There’s a definite value to quantity time with the Bible.
Value of the Word of God
And there’s also some quality to our time with the Bible. Did you watch any of the Olympics? For much of the Olympics this year we were at Adam’s Camp – the special needs camp for our older son. And we happened to be in a cabin with a satellite TV. So ironically, we watched way more of the Olympics in a cabin in the mountains than we would have at home.
And I remember the interview with swimmer Caleb Dressel shortly after one of his early gold medal swims. Since families couldn’t be there in-person, they actually had his parents and wife on a video call right after his swim. And he just started bawling at the sound of their voices and the sight of their faces.
And that reminded me of the times I have clearly heard or felt or seen the Word of God. In my moments of triumph, I want to hear the voice of God. In my moments of defeat, I want to hear the voice of God. In my moments of questioning, I want to hear the voice of God. In my moments of clarity, I want to hear the voice of God. In my stillness, I want to hear the voice of God. In my activity and effort, I want to hear the voice of God.
And we can be grateful, because the voice of God is ever-present and at our fingertips. I don’t clearly hear the voice of God every time I crack open the Bible. But the more time I spend reading and reflecting on the Bible the more I do clearly hear the voice of God. Quantity time with God leads to quality time with God.
One of the things I thought about on my sabbatical is the process of becoming and making disciples. I’m trying to put together all of the best books and teachings and concepts I have into one framework. And then I’m trying to break that down into tangible recommendations for new followers of Jesus, parents discipling their children, people who feel stagnant after a long time following Jesus, people thinking about their legacy in retirement. It’s still very much a work in progress, but the framework is there. I’m calling it organic discipleship. I’ll talk more about this at Sunday school at 9am on September 26 at my first sabbatical presentation.
In the framework, I broke discipleship down into three basic areas. There are some things that are common to all followers of Jesus – the foundational spiritual practices – the roots of our faith practice. Everyone needs to be rooted by reading and reflecting on the Bible. Everyone needs to be rooted by praying beyond just making requests. Everyone needs to be rooted by having connections with other followers of Jesus. These are baseline, across-the-board kinds of things.
Above that we have the ways that our faith and our divine design plays out uniquely. If you remember the Younique sermon series and groups, they were about growing in your understanding of your divine design and purpose. If you remember the spiritual pathways sermon series, it was about growing in understanding how you are uniquely designed to experience and express love to God. Everyone is different in how they grow beyond the roots of faith.
And above that we have the ways we branch out to serve others and invest in other people’s journey toward Jesus. When we did the spiritual gifts sermon series and classes, they were designed to help you understand how to branch out and serve in a way that will be life-giving instead of life-draining. And the class we did on My Gospel, developing and telling your own story with God, that designed to help you branch out and share your faith with those who are no intentionally following Jesus yet.
Put all of that together, and you have a forest of spiritual Redwoods. Each tree is unique. But each tree shares some common traits. That’s how I see the church, and how I see following Jesus. Organic discipleship.
But if your roots are withering? All the above-ground growth and all the incredible branching out will wither, too. So I am going to make a strong commitment to my roots this year. I need to have a rooted mind by reading and reflecting on the Bible. I need to have a rooted heart by praying beyond requests. I already have groups I’m restarting now that I’m back from sabbatical, so I think I’m good on the rooted connections with other followers.
But I invite you to make a commitment to your spiritual roots this year as well. If you want somewhere to start, I’m going to personally recommit to the Life Journal devotional I have used for years. If you want to join me, I have an explanation and the next two months’ worth of the reading plan available to pick up as you leave the Sanctuary. There’s also a video explaining it on the Spiritual Journey page of our website. This is the most compact and impactful spiritual growth tool I have found.
If that’s not the devotional for you, I invite you to make a commitment to some other method of regularly reading and reflecting on the Bible and praying beyond requests. There are other options on our website as well. We need strong roots to keep growing and branching out as followers of Jesus.
Sisters and brothers, the Word of God is right at our fingertips! Just as Caleb Dressel was moved to tears at the sound of his loved ones’ voices at the Olympics, we can be moved to joy and assurance and new life at the sound of the voice of God. But it takes quantity time with the Word of God to reach the quality time of hearing the voice of God personally. Will you recommit to your faith roots with me? Amen.