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People of the Book: The Bible and Spiritual Renewal

January 15, 2012
 Sermon:  People of the Book:  The Bible and Spiritual Renewal
Text:  II Chronicles 34


My wife enjoys sharing little nuggets of truth with me, and sometimes she does that by showing me comics that appear in the funny paper.  One of her favorites is Hagar the Horrible.  Inevitably, Hagar comes home from a battle, covered with all kinds of injuries, only to hear his wife complain about mud on his shoes or some other trivial matter.

One day last week, I returned home late at night. When Clare handed me a Hagar the Horrible comic, I read it but did not laugh or even crack a smile.  She fussed, “Your job is just too hard.  It takes all the humor out of you.”

I agree.  Sometimes my job does seem too hard.

An experience right here on Christmas Sunday made me cherish this congregation even more.  Some of you will remember that Holly, Paula, and Gail organized a wonderful service of lessons and carols, which involved the choir.  Special music followed lessons from the Scriptures.

Jim Pennington prefaced the passage he was to read by saying, “I am reading the King James Version from the Bible that Preacher Mike McGee gave me when I was baptized.”

Later in that service Carla Pitman read another passage of Scripture with the use of her smart phone.  I thought, I love Morningside.  We have such diversity in our congregation.  Both individuals read the Scripture in two very different ways.

Before I left town last week, it occurred to me that I should preach a series on the Bible.  Today is the first of that series, People of the Book.  We will consider the Bible and spiritual renewal for the next several weeks.

As I was preparing this morning’s sermon, I thought about my brother Bill, our member Herb Kay, and the Gideon speaker who was here Wednesday night.

My brother Bill is one of the smartest people I know, but he is afflicted with a learning disorder called dyslexia.  He scrambles his words terribly sometimes.  I told him that he ought to do very well in Hebrew because that language is read from right to left, but he did not do any better in Hebrew than he did in English.  Bill had a very difficult time in school until his sophomore year at Gardner-Webb when he met Wanda, who is now his wife.  Wanda helped Bill with his course papers.  He dictated the information while she typed.  Wanda even asked the guidance counselor to identify Bill as having dyslexia.  This identification allowed him to take some of his examinations orally.  His grades greatly improved, and he is now Dr. Bill Neely.  To this day, reading and writing are difficult for him.

Perhaps you know that people with dyslexia sometimes read words backwards.  Bill still thinks the Christmas angels sang, “Leon, Leon.”

Bill preaches completely without notes.  Instead of writing down his ideas, he is a kind of gunslinger, shooting from the hip.  When he was pastor of a church in Hanahan, one of his elders joked, “Bill gets up and starts talking until he thinks of something to say.”  Aren’t you glad I do not do that?

Yes, I know you are wondering where this story is going.

Some years back, Bill told his congregation a story to help them understand what it meant to have mixed emotions.  He explained, “An illustration of mixed emotions is when your teenage daughter comes home at 2:00 in the morning, carrying a Gideon Bible under her arm.”

Quite upset with her husband, Wanda fussed, “Bill, you should have never told that story to the congregation!”

He protested, “But they all laughed.  They thought it was funny.”

“Yes, but it was the Sunday the Gideon speaker came!”

Bill confessed, “That’s what made me think of the story.”

We will closely consider the Bible for the next several weeks.

I own a number of Bibles, as you might expect, and I brought several with me today.  I received this Bible when I was in college.  It has become quite battered over the years, and I have taped it several times.  This second Bible has been to five different national Scout jamborees; and this rugged, outdoor Bible, which has been with me camping a number of times, is still one of my favorites to read.  This fourth Bible is one that my dad termed as my “funeralizing Bible.”  I have marked numerous passages and copied a few poems in the back that are particularly suited for funerals.

Finally, almost every Sunday I preach from this New International Version, an edition with large print.  Dear friends who are members of this church gave me this Bible because they became tired of watching me hold one with smaller print so close to my face while reading.

Just this weekend, I bought a new Bible entitled The Story.  This Bible includes the New International Version text, but it condenses those tedious passages of genealogy.  It eliminates some of the labor of reading.  I want to read a little more of this text before recommending it to you.

Take a copy of a Bible, and hold it in your hands for a moment.  Become aware of how old this particular Book is.  You understand that it records the story of Creation.  You also understand that person after person after person orally transmitted much of the content of the Old Testament around campfires.  Older Bedouins told the stories, making sure that younger generations learned them accurately.  Only when civilization settled down could the content be written with an accuracy that is almost uncanny.

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible.  Fifty-four scholars worked together to give us that particular translation.  One member of my Sunday School class remarked this morning, “That version is one of the great masterpieces created by a committee.”  It really is a masterpiece.  The scholars worked with the translations from Tyndale and Coverdale.  They worked from the Latin Vulgate, the Greek Septuagint, plus Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  They discovered that the Hebrew manuscripts had almost no variation from one manuscript to another.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls just a few years ago took our knowledge of the Bible in the original manuscripts way back before the time of Jesus.  That knowledge indicates very little discrepancy in the manuscripts that had been preserved over all the years.  People have died because they dared to translate this Book into the language of the people.  They were martyred, put to death, because they wanted others to have access to the Word of God.

We dare not take lightly the treasure that is ours in the Bible.  Those of us who are Christians need to be people of the Book.  We need to treasure the Bible, not only as a classic of literature, but also as the contemporary Word of God to all of us.

Listen to these few facts about the Bible:

–          The original manuscripts were written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), but some Aramaic appears in both.
–          Those original manuscripts contained no chapters and verses.  A Roman Catholic cardinal decided that chapter divisions would be helpful in 1238 A.D. – 1238 years after the birth of   
           Jesus.  The invention of the printing press, about 300 years later, aided in the addition of verses. 
–          According to statistics from Wycliffe Bible International, Gideons International, and International Bible Society, 168,000 copies of the Bible are sold, given away, or otherwise distributed
            every single day. 
–          The Bible has been translated into 1200 languages.
–          Reading the Bible aloud from cover to cover takes about seventy hours, which is fewer than three days.  My request that you read this entire Book in a year does not seem all that
            unreasonable when you consider that fact.
–          The Bible consists of sixty-six books written by about forty human writers.
–          The Bible is the inspired Word of God.  God is the divine Author. 
–          The Bible includes 1260 promises, 6000 commands, and about 8000 predictions.
–          The Bible includes over 3000 prophecies that have been fulfilled and about 3000 prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled.
–          The Bible includes about 32,000 questions, a fact that is very comforting to me.  Faith asks questions.

Turn to II Chronicles, Chapter 33.  Listen to the text about the king named Manasseh.

1 Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.

What were those “detestable practices”?  Among them were idolatry, pagan worship of all kinds, consultations with sorcerers, and sacrificial offerings of the oldest child.

21-22Amon was twenty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem two years.  He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, as his father Manasseh had done.”

Both the father and son follow evil practices.  Reading a verse or two more reveals that Amon was assassinated by people of his own court.  Afterwards, people revolted against those who had killed Amon and made his son, Josiah, king.  This boy was only eight years old when he began his reign.

Follow along as I read a few verses from II Chronicles 34.

1 Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. 2 He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and followed the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.  3 In the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David.  In his twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of high places, Asherah poles and idols. 4 Under his direction the altars of the Baals were torn down; he cut to pieces the incense altars that were above them, and smashed the Asherah poles and the idols.

This teenage political leader did what was right, in contrast to his father and grandfather.  The reference to “his father David,” which actually means that he is of the lineage of David, shows that he possessed admirable values and morals.  Josiah began a spiritual search for God with the aid of his contemporaries, including the prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum.  Political and spiritual leaders now worked together toward reforming the nation by cleaning out all of the vestiges of pagan worship sites and pagan ways that had been instituted under his father and grandfather.

8In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, to purify the land and the temple, he sent Shaphan son of Azaliah and Maaseiah the ruler of the city, with Joah son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the temple of the LORD his God.

The temple had been in disuse, in disrepair, for more than fifty years.  No Passover celebrations had been held in the temple, and no sacrifices had been made on the altar in Jerusalem.  None of the great traditions of the Jewish people had been celebrated.  So immersed in the pagan cults and worship, they had completely forsaken the worship of God, the Lord God, the one true God.  Talk about an extreme makeover in the temple!  Among Josiah’s reforms were plans to repair the building and put it right.

While making these repairs, they discovered something of great importance.

 14While they were bringing out the money that had been taken into the temple of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the LORD that had been given through Moses. 15 Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD.” He gave it to Shaphan.
16 Then Shaphan took the book to the king and reported to him: “Your officials are doing everything that has been committed to them. 17 They have paid out the money that was in the temple of the LORD and have entrusted it to the supervisors and workers.” 18 Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

What was this “Book of the Law” that was discovered?  Most scholars believe that it was the book of Deuteronomy or some part of Deuteronomy.  It is simply called the Book of the Covenant, but the name Deuteronomy means the second law or the second giving of the law.  That Book of Law summarized the first four books of the Torah, the first four books of the Pentateuch.

Deuteronomy is structured around three sermons Moses preached in the wilderness just before he said goodbye to the people and went up Mount Nebo to die.  The mantel fell upon Joshua to lead them into the land of promise.  It is in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 that we find the Scripture known as the Shema:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Verse 19 tells us what happened when this book was read in the presence of King Josiah:  “When the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes.”  Jewish men tore their robes when a child died, when they experienced any great sorrow, when they were grieved.  Josiah’s heart was broken because the people were not following the teachings of God.  They did not even know about this book because they had neglected it for years and years.  Neglecting the temple is bad enough, but neglecting the Word of God is worse.

29Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. 30 He went up to the temple of the LORD with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the Levites—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the LORD. 31 The king stood by his pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the LORD—to follow the LORD and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book.

Josiah’s response to the discovery of the Book of the Covenant and its renewal are important moments in the history of Israel.  Not only was the temple repaired but something of far greater importance was repaired – the hearts of the people.  This change began with a renewal in the heart of a young man, aged sixteen.  The Scripture says, “He sought the Lord.”  Josiah found the Lord.

Jeremiah, his contemporary, would write on God’s behalf, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to do you good and not hard, plans to give you a future and a hope.  You will seek me, and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-12).

Josiah sought the Lord with all of his heart, and of course God’s first interest is to have us trust in Him.  He wants our personal salvation more than anything else.  Once that happens, God begins to show us what we need to do in the world around us.  He begins to show us what changes need to be made.  By the age of twenty, Josiah had begun making drastic reforms, purging Judah and Jerusalem of pagan worship, tearing down everything that represented an idolatrous and evil way of living.

Think about the barriers that Josiah had to overcome.  One barrier was his age.  He was only twenty years old when he began ordering all of these changes.  The people knew these reforms were needed, and they followed his leadership.  A second obstacle was his heritage.  Scripture says that his grandfather and his father did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.  Scripture also makes reference to his father David, and we could reference his great-grandfather, Hezekiah, who both did what was right.  Josiah has some good tradition though distant.  This young man acts in a responsible way and does what is right.  Surely some among the populace would have opposed him, but he was so insistent, so devoted, so committed in doing what was right.  It is often hard to do what we know is right, but God shows us the way.

God is at work in this place.  We have already begun seeing some evidence of an extreme makeover with polyethylene sheets covering hallways during the removal of asbestos.  Morningside is going through a project of restoration, but restoring our hearts is more important than restoring a building.

How do we do that repair our hearts?  We are people of the Book.  We do not have to discover the Book anew.  Each one of you has access to at least one Bible.  If not, let me know.  We will get you a Bible.  If you take this Book, hold it in your hand, think about it, and put it down without ever reading it, the Word of God will never get to your heart.

We have given you a plan of reading the entire Bible.  It would be wonderful if you would read it through in a year, but if not possible, that is fine.  Just open it and read it.  It is God’s Word for God’s people no less now than it was in Josiah’s day.

As we read the Bible, we will discover something that Josiah found.  The Bible talks about itself as a sword.  We see that Josiah was cut to the heart when he read the Book of the Covenant.   Scripture says that on the Day of Pentecost, the people were cut to the heart when Simon Peter preached his great sermon.  It is a way of saying that the Holy Spirit intrudes into our lives and shows us what is right, what is correct, what is needed for change.  The book of James talks about the Bible being a mirror in Chapter 1:23-25.  If we look into the mirror and see our flaws but do nothing about them, it does us no good.  If we look in the mirror and recognize changes that need to be made, the Bible will begin to make an impact on our lives.

One night Carl Bates, a traveling salesman at the time, was staying in a motel. He opened the drawer of a little dresser in the room and found a Gideon Bible.  Not a Christian at that point, he began reading the Bible and found there God’s simple plan for salvation.  Bates knelt on his knees beside his bed and prayed to receive Christ.  With no one else listening to him, no one else grabbing him by the jugular vein, no one else taking him to the mat and twisting his arm, he simply read the Word of God and accepted Christ.

I sat on the platform one night at a revival service with Dr. Carl Bates, who by that time was the long-time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina.  Hearing Dr. Bates tell that story about how reading the Word of God changed his life gave me a great desire to spend more time in the Scriptures.  I cherish reading the Bible every single day.  I want to invite you to do that.  Doing so will make a profound difference in your life.  Doing so will begin to make a difference in this world.  If we will seek the face of God and turn to His Word, I can promise you there is no telling what the Lord will do in this place.  We need to be people of the Book.

Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh?  Have you acknowledged him and invited him into your life?  If not, I extend to you an invitation to accept Christ Jesus.  Some here today may have other decisions to make.  We invite you to respond to the invitation of God.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2012

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