Follow the Instructions

Happy New Year! If you’re like everyone else in the world, I suspect you were about as ready for this calendar turning as you have ever been for anything. We made it. 2020 is in the books–and my how that book will be remembered! We have a fresh start ahead of us. Yet, how do we make this fresh start more than just a new set of challenges? In a new teaching series called, A Fresh Start, we’re talking about that very thing. Keep reading to learn more.

Follow the Instructions

So…are you ready for a fresh start? Do you even remember this time last year? Remember how excited we all were about the prospect of 2020. There’s just something exciting about the turning of a whole decade more so than a normal new year brings. And maybe it was because of the place of life I was in, but for some reason 2020 just felt more exciting than 2010 had. And then…well…you know. This mystery virus popped up in China and a year later nearly 350,000 of our fellow citizens have lost their lives to it. Worldwide we’re up over 1.8 million lives lost. We’re over three-quarters of the way to 100 million infected.

The hits have just kept coming too. Just when we thought we had one thing down, here came another one. COVID brought economic hardships unlike anything our nation had, really, ever seen. We’ve faced rough economic seasons before, sure, but those were times when the fundamentals were broken. Our fundamentals were sound and chugging along really well. It’s like we took a plane that was flying along fine and cut off the engine just to see how far it would take us before it crashed.

Then there was the racial unrest and ensuing riots and a wildly contentious election season and a devastating wild fire season in the west and an incredibly active hurricane season and all of the various the fallout from all of that. And then you had all the normal challenges that every year brings. All told, I think the “bring on 2021” memes started appearing about April of last year. We are ready for a fresh start. And here we are. 2021 has finally arrived. You made it upright and walking. Take that for the win it is.

The question we are facing, though, is what we’re supposed to do now. I mean, again, here we are, but what do we do? How do we do something with this fresh start that’s actually going to be meaningful? Well, when it comes to the world generally, that’s a big question that we’re not going to try and tackle together. When it comes to you and your life, though, that is something in which I am a whole lot more interested. For the next few weeks that is exactly what we are going to be talking about in a brand-new series called, A Fresh Start.

So, what does it look like for your life to have a fresh start? How can we do that? Well, the best place to start is actually where we landed last week. And where was that? Trusting Jesus with your life. Remember: God’s plans in Christ are for your salvation. If you want a fresh start, that’s about the freshest you’re going to get. There’s a reason Paul said that when you are in Christ, you are a new creation. The old is gone; the new has come. When you put yourself in His hands, your life is like the “after” image in one of those stain removal commercials. It was filthy with sin before, and now it’s clean. Completely clean. No spots remaining.

And perhaps you’ve done that. You’ve gotten that fresh start for your life. Here we are in 2021. Now what? Well, a fresh start is a good thing. But once you have that, you have to actually go somewhere with it. You have to grow. Okay, but how do we do that? The secret to that is not such a secret at all. As a follower of Jesus, the way to grow in our relationship with Him is through the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are simply intentional practices we take up in our lives that open us up to the shaping power of the Holy Spirit in ways we don’t get on our own. And while there are several different spiritual disciplines we can pursue, for the next few weeks I want to focus in with you on five that are basic for all believers to be pursuing on a regular basis in their lives. I don’t expect that by the end of the month you are going to be an expert in any of these. But, if you will commit to at least testing the waters, then you will be taking some important steps toward seeing the fresh start of a new year mean something more than just a set of new challenges to overcome. This morning, as we get started on this journey, we are going to start with one that is perhaps the most basic of all: engaging with the Scriptures.

And I suspect I know something of what you might be thinking right now: “Okay. Here goes. The preacher is going to tell us to read our Bibles again. I know I don’t do that as often as I should, but I try. I don’t need another guilt trip about being a better Christian. I already feel like enough of a failure as it is. How soon is this going to be over?” About 12 minutes, but that’s beside the point. I want you to know that I am not going to tell you this morning that you should read your Bibles because it’s the right thing to do as a follower of Jesus. I won’t say it. In fact, I don’t even think it. I would actually go so far as to say that if you are only reading your Bible because you feel like you should be doing it, you’re probably not getting very much out of it. It might even feel like a chore to you and a boring one at that. There are places in the Scriptures where we are commanded to engage with the words of God, but that’s not where I want to take us this morning. Anytime something related to our following Jesus gets put on the “have to” list, it generally ceases to become something that’s really moving us meaningfully in His direction.

No, the truth is that if we are going to really engage with the Scriptures meaningfully in our lives, it is going to happen when we want to do it. That’s not something I can give you. But I can show you why developing that desire is very much worth your time. Well, when it comes to love for God’s word, there aren’t many of the folks who contributed to the Scriptures who have a greater passion than King David did. David’s life was one of great spiritual highs and lows, but a passionate love for God served as the foundation for nearly all that he did. It is both what made his falls so much more devastating, but his successes all the sweeter.

David expressed much of his passion in the Psalms where he contributed more than any other single writer. In one Psalm in particular, David spoke of the greatness of God in His word in a way that resonates with love rather than duty. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to Psalm 19 with me.

David starts here by celebrating the greatness of God in creation. He trumpets with boldness that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” In other words, we can gain a knowledge of God just by looking at the world around us. I heard an interview with an award-winning chemist a few days ago who had decided he did not believe in God while he was at MIT because of his background with the church, but then started examining the available scientific evidence and was led unavoidably to the conclusion that God does exist. This newfound confidence eventually became a passionate relationship with Jesus. Don’t ever buy the argument from someone that they don’t believe in God for intellectual reasons. That’s not ever the case. People reject God for personal reasons and use intellectual excuses to keep from having to really deal with the personal ones.

In any event, about halfway through the psalm, David suddenly shifts gears. Instead of looking up for evidence of God, he starts looking down; down into the words of God. There he finds even more reasons to back his belief. Look at this with me starting in v. 7. “The instruction of the Lord is perfect, renewing one’s life; the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise. The precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad; the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are reliable and altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold—than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb. In addition, your servant is warned by them, and in keeping them there is an abundant reward.”

Can you hear his passion for the words of the Lord here? It practically drips from the words. You just about read them and then have to clean up the mess they leave behind. Did you catch all the words David used to describe God’s word here? It is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, and reliable. It is more desirable than anything a person might desire. It is better than the richest wealth or the finest food. And think about what it can do. It can renew your life, give wisdom to the inexperienced, gladden a sad heart, and make the eyes light up with joy. What’s not to love? Find me something else that can accomplish all those things, and I’ll show you something people are willing to pay big bucks to have as their own. Yet here it is available for everyone for almost nothing. The Scriptures contain the greatest treasure the world has ever seen, and you have a more abundant and complete access to them than you do just about anything else in the world. Think about something that’s more easily obtainable than the Bible. There aren’t many things on that list.

Your life can be completely transformed by what lies between these covers just as also have been the lives of countless others over the last 2,000 years of human history. For that matter, the whole course of human history itself has been altered by these words. Why would you not want to engage with them more fully and intentionally? If you want a life that’s better than what you have right now, if you want to be better at life than you are right now, you’ll find everything you need right here. If you want to make your fresh start actually mean something, this is where you begin. You start by engaging with the words of God. And you don’t do it because of some duty or obligation; you do it because there isn’t anywhere else that makes more sense. Wisdom and life are found in God’s word.

And perhaps that sounds good to you, but an idea like that doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on. We’re in the season of making resolutions. Millions of people are making resolutions for things they want to see happen in their lives right now. And while that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, the truth is that within a week or two, millions of people are going to have broken their resolutions. Intention without direction equals frustration. Inspiring you to want to engage more fully with the Scriptures is good. Equipping you with a plan of action so you feel like you can actually do it is better. Wisdom and life are found in God’s word. That does you absolutely no good if you don’t know how to search for it. Well, the spiritual disciplines are inherently practical and so over the course of this series we are going to be as well. Here are three things you can do today to better incorporate the discipline of engaging with the Scriptures into your life.

First—and get ready because this one is pretty complicated—read it. If you want to engage with the Scriptures more in your life…you have to actually read them. Regularly. Like, every day. You don’t need to spend hours doing it, and frankly, your life is probably busy enough you don’t have time to give this more than a few minutes. But, if you want access to the wisdom and life found in God’s word, you need to be spending time with and in that word every, single day. Doing this with a physical Bible is fine. If you are a smart phone person, getting a good Bible app that has reading plans and reading reminders built into it is good too. My recommendation here is the YouVersion Bible App. There is not a better app for basic Bible engagement out there. 

As for where to read, that depends on where you are in your journey with Jesus. If you’re still pretty new to the whole thing, then you need to be spending the bulk of your time in Mark, John, or Romans. Even if not those, stick pretty closely to the New Testament. If you’re a bit further along, then you can start spending a bit more time exploring the Old Testament and the wisdom to be found there. The reason for this is that the Bible is not a book the way we normally think about books. If you’ve ever been led to think otherwise, you’ve been led astray and I’m sorry for that.

When preparing to engage with the Scriptures, while God can use any part of it to draw someone to Him, perhaps the worst thing you can do is start in Genesis and read straight through from cover to cover. Until you have the New Testament, Jesus, and the basics of being a follower of Jesus down, outside of the Psalms and Proverbs, you probably don’t need to spend a whole lot of time with the Old Testament. That’s the extras for experts part. Now, that doesn’t mean the Old Testament is somehow unimportant. It’s not. But it’s talking about things that you need to understand the New Testament really well before you’ll be able to make properly positive sense out of them.

As you do begin engaging there, though, if you’ll keep two things in mind, the hard parts won’t be nearly as bad as they have been for some people. First, nothing you encounter there changes the fact that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. Second, Jesus accepted it at face value so you can too. Wisdom and life are found in God’s word. Reading it regularly will put you in a place to receive them.

Doing nothing but reading it casually, though, may serve as something like basic maintenance on the vehicle that is your life, but it won’t address any of the more significant repairs it might need. The other day I got the oil changed in our van. That’s good preventative maintenance. In the process, though, I discovered that the radiator thermostat was stuck open which would eventually cause engine damage. It was going to take a deeper dive to keep things running properly over the long haul. This is why the second thing you can do to begin engaging more fully with the wisdom and life found in God’s word is to study it.

This goes beyond simply reading. This is where you take a single passage and learn everything about it you can. You read a particular section over and over again. You read it carefully and slowly. You read it in a good study Bible—which, by the way, means you need a good study Bible; I highly recommend the ESV Study Bible. You read the study notes on it. You pull out your magnifying glass to look up all the various cross references the editors suggested for that passage. You read those passages carefully. You find a commentary that can illuminate the passage a little more with some cultural or linguistic tidbits that will increase your understanding of what the author was trying to communicate. A great and easy tool to use here is the NetBible App. This one doesn’t have all the tools of the YouVersion Bible App, but if there’s a particular word whose meaning you want to know in more detail, the NetBible App almost certainly has easy-to-access and free notes explaining it for you. If you want to get beyond that into some actual commentaries…well…I have one or two of those in my office that I would be glad to loan you. The point is here: Wisdom and life are found in God’s word, but not all of it is just sitting there on the surface to pick up as you go. Some requires just a bit more effort. It is effort, however, that you will be glad you gave.

The third thing you can do to engage more fully with the Scriptures right now is to pray through it. What I’m talking about is taking a single passage of Scripture—perhaps even a single verse—and making it the focus of your prayer life for a season. That season could be a day, a week, a month, or more. When you do this, though, you are actively inviting the God who inspired it to speak to you directly as to what He meant by it and what you should do with it. This prayer involves talking, yes, but it also involves listening. It involves reading carefully and then pausing with a prayerful heart to ask the Holy Spirit how it is you should understand it. Then, after listening for a time, you pray it back to Him. The shape and scope of this prayer will depend on the Scripture in question. It may be that your prayer is primarily filled with gratitude for some promise of God. It maybe that it is filled with confession because of the conviction of the words. Wisdom and life are found in God’s word, but they have their source in the God who inspired it. Inviting and actively seeking out that God to be a part of your process of engaging will make it all the more likely that you find what you are seeking.

One spiritual discipline, three key practices. Friends, this is something you can do. It is something you must do if you want your fresh start to become something more than the turning of the calendar. It will enable you to be a part of God’s solution of grace to the brokenness of the world. As good as it is, though, it’s not all you need to get where you’re trying to go. Be back here next week and we’ll talk about another spiritual discipline which, when combined with this one, will enable you to move even further down this road.

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