Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
The word of God is living and active
This morning I would like to explore one way that we can hear God speaking with us. With you. With me. I wonder how you feel just now, hearing those words? Did your heart give a little surge? Was there a sense of yes, I want that? I would like to hear from God personally, to me, in my life? Or was there a bit of fear in there? Anxiety, apprehension? What would he say to me if I gave him the chance? Tell me off? Or was it, no, I don’t want this. If that’s the case, where does the resistance come from? Or was there a blank feeling, a sort of internal shrug – whatever? Meh? For now, just register your reaction. It is how you are, where you are now.
Why would God speak with me? Why would He take that trouble? In a very real, very big way, God has already spoken and continues to speak. He spoke the Word that brought the whole of creation into being. We read in Genesis 1 that: ‘Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light…”’ God is recorded as having spoken all through the scriptures. God spoke again to Mary, Mary whose ‘yes’ enabled God to become a human being, whom John in his gospel refers to as ‘the Word made flesh’ (John 1:14) who came and dwelt among us.
And yet, it’s possible to say all of that, and even agree with it, and still not know how God can speak to me. Our two readings today give a vivid picture of what that may be like. It’s frankly a bit scary. In the Hebrews passage, the first reading, we heard that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart’. The idea of the word of God being like a sharp sword was vividly illustrated in the gospel reading. A man kneels before Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Why does he do that? He’s rich, he’s young, he’s a ruler (we know this from the other accounts of the same story in Luke and Matthew). He’s probably good looking too, he has everything. He knows the commandments and keeps them. What else could he possibly want? At some level he knows it’s not enough. He knows of Jesus, perhaps he has met him before and he senses, intuits, knows that this man has what he wants, what he needs to be complete. And he wants it. For after all, ‘O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ (Augustine). Jesus looked at this man and, as the gospel tells us, he ‘loved him’. And tells him he must sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him. Why for heaven’s sake does he tell him that?? Does that feel a bit like a sword, cutting through the thoughts and intentions of the heart? I’m sure that wasn’t what the man expected. Jesus surely didn’t want this to needlessly cause him pain, and yet it did cause him pain. ‘When he heard this, he was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. To understand this, we have to remember that Jesus’ attitude towards him was one of love and he spoke to him out of that love. He saw that his wealth was his security, it defined him, it was a false god, it blocked his relationship with the one, true, living God. It had to go, at a single stroke. For that man to find what he was looking for, eternal life, (which is another way of saying God, because to know God is to find eternal life (John 17:3)), the false god had to go. In order for that man to become the person that God wanted him to be – free, an inheritor of eternal life in all its fulness and joy – he had to offload what held him down. Think of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field and the man who sold everything he had to buy the field; or the pearl merchant finding the ‘pearl of great price’ and selling all he had to get it (Matthew 13:44-46). It’s the same message. I will just say here that Jesus is only recorded as having said this to this one man.
But I digress. What might God be saying to you, to me? And how can we hear? Will it hurt? As we begin to consider this, let us hold on to the fundamental truth that God’s attitude towards you and me is always and only one of love. He will only lead us towards what completes us, fulfils us as beloved and precious children of God. If there is something hard for us to hear then it is for our growth, not to punish or to squash us.
The Hebrews passage I have already referred to talks of the ‘word of God’ and I am taking that to mean the scriptures, the bible, although God may speak to us in any number of ways. There are many ways to read the scriptures. Some of us here will have grown up with the idea that the Bible is a bit like an instruction manual – follow the maker’s instructions and all well be well. There are bits of the bible that read like that – but plenty that doesn’t. The Bible is a very varied book – actually 66 different books – written over a long period of time with very different aims in mind. I guess some of us have at some time done ‘bible study’ – often in groups like our home groups – where we analyse the passage, pull it apart, try and make sense of it. This way of reading scripture is perfectly valid, but it tends to be quite analytical, quite ‘head-based’. And then there are lots of people who hardly read the scriptures at all, for whatever reason.
I would like to introduce a way of engaging with scripture that just may help us to hear what God is saying to me, now. It’s an ancient method, and some of us are familiar with it, some not. It’s a way of reading scripture that takes into full account that God is present. Present with us as we read, but also present in us as we read. It’s like reading a book when the author is actually in the room with us, whispering to us, I wrote this for you!
The method goes by different names – Lectio Divina is the traditional name meaning ‘divine reading’ or ‘sacred reading’, but it’s also known as ‘dwelling in the word’. First, you need to choose a passage to read – the gospels are good places to start. I have listed some places you could start with on the sermon printout. This way of reading scripture is really prayer.
First, select a passage of scripture and the find some time – perhaps 15 or 20 minutes – and a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Phone off. Door shut. Then, you will need to become still. This is perhaps the hardest part. Sit comfortably, perhaps take some slow, deep breaths, breathing in God and breathing out any anxieties you have. Put down what is concerning you. Slow down. Pray, ask God to speak with you as you engage with the passage you will read. Turn to the text and read it slowly, gently. You might read it out loud to yourself – this is a good way to slow down, to prevent you rushing forward. You might pause after reading it once and read it again, and again. Savour each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am the word for you today.” Does a word jump out for you? Or slowly emerge as important? Does it touch you in some way? Become aware of what is happening to you and in you: you may find that there is a gentle reaction in your body – a warmth in your heart, a sense of excitement, a tightening of your throat as you read, you may even tear up. Something – or someone – in you is reacting to what you are reading and it is here that God is giving you something that you need to hear and receive. In lectio divina God is teaching us to listen to Him, to seek Him in silence. He does not reach out and grab us; rather, He softly, gently invites us ever more deeply into His presence.
Next take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories and ideas.
Then, speak to God. Whether you use words or ideas or images or all three is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. And give to Him what you have discovered in yourself during your experience of meditation. Experience God using the word or phrase that He has given you as a means of blessing, of transforming the ideas and memories, which your pondering on His word has awakened. Give to God what you have found within your heart.
As an example, perhaps you are reading the story of Jesus calming the storm (Luke 8:22-25). As you read, these words stand out for you – ‘Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm’. As you read them out loud again, and again, you sense that these words are for you: there are many worries in your life at present, it feels like a storm. You allow these words to soak in and you respond in prayer, ‘Lord, it feels a bit like a storm in my life right now. Please, speak that word. Let there be calm.’ And then you might just rest, even perhaps picturing yourself in the boat, sitting with Jesus. It is the safest place to be.
Henri Nouwen, the priest, and author, tells this story: ‘There was a soldier who was captured and made a prisoner of war. The enemies took him far away and he was completely isolated from his family and friends. He did not hear anything from home and he felt very lonely and afraid. He felt he had nothing to live for and was in despair. Then, he got an unexpected letter, crumpled and dirty because it had travelled so long and so far to reach him. It was just a piece of paper, but precious to him because of the words it might contain. He opened the letter and read these simple words: “Everything is fine. Do not worry. We will see you back at home and we all want to see you”. This simple letter changed his life. He suddenly felt better and no longer despaired. There was a reason to live. The external circumstances of his life, his imprisonment and isolation, did not change. He continued his labour, endured the same difficulties, but he felt completely different on the inside. Hope was reborn in him that day. There was a word of God in the words of another. What I am trying to say is that God has written us a love letter in scripture, the written word. May we learn to read it, and to hear it, and allow it to speak to us, and let it bring in us the gifts of hope and faith.
Here are some passages to get you started on Lectio Divina:
Luke 10:38-42, Mary and Martha
Mark 10:46-52, The healing of blind Bartimaeus
Matthew 8:28-34, the Gadarene swine
Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob wrestles with the angel
Exodus 3:11-14, I AM who I AM
Matthew 5:14-16, You are the light of the world
There is lots written about Lectio Divina. Try googling ‘lectio divina passage’.
 Nouwen, Henri, Spiritual Direction – wisdom for the long walk of faith, SPCK, London, 2011, p. 100