So how can I read the gospels as more than just daily Bible reading I check off my to-do list?
Break Thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,
As Thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word!
(From the song, “Break Thou the Bread of Life”*)
Our churches hunger for it.
Our people yearn for it.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have a deep and insatiable longing for it.
This “it” for which we hunger, yearn, and long is a genuine experience of God’s true presence in our lives. We want to know that God is not only real, but that we can also experience God — Father, Son, and Spirit — in undeniable ways. And we want to know this in the core of our souls!
Sadly, we seldom talk about this longing. We run from one fad to another, jump from one church program to another, hop from church to church looking for the best church experience, read the latest book, go to the hottest seminars, and watch the latest videos in search of it. Yet like eating a candy bar when we are desperately hungry, we enjoy the sweetness and rush of energy only to quickly crash craving something more sustaining.
We — our people, our churches, and even our own souls — need to experience Immanuel, God with us. And here is the great blessing: Matthew, the gospel that sustained Jesus’ people for centuries, points us to the table of grace where we can feast and satisfy our hunger and experience what our souls yearn to find.
For the next four weeks, we want to remind ourselves how we can experience Immanuel. Thankfully, Matthew has already pointed the way! Matthew has given us four Immanuel sayings.**
The first way Matthew helps us experience Immanuel is by inviting us to enter the story of Jesus!
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:22-24).
We encourage, ask, cajole, and beg our people to read Scripture. We come up with all sorts of plans to help them. We have all sorts of online aids from Bible reading plans, apps, and online resources — and all of these can be good and helpful. (I believe in them and have even written over nine years of daily devotionals like verseoftheday.com and aYearwithJesuus.com!) But Matthew is not calling us to daily Bible reading. He is challenging us:
- To enter into the story of Jesus.
- To realize that Jesus’ story connects us to the great creative work of God rooted in the Father’s desire to have relationship with us.
- To know that our sin rips apart everything — our cosmos, our relationships, and our physical well-being.
- To see the grief of God at our sin and his own costly plan to use Abraham and his descendants to bring us a Savior who will sacrifice himself to undo our mess and restore our intimate relationship with a Father who longs to walk with us and be known to us in our daily lives.
- To walk with Jesus and his closest followers — to experience his miracles, hear his words, be touched by his compassion, be captured by his simple stories, and to delight in his clever answers.
- To be part of his ongoing story in the world through his church which Satan cannot stop, defeat, or derail from its world-wide mission.
So how do we actually enter into Jesus’ story?
This is the crucial question we must answer; otherwise our reading of Matthew becomes just another attempt to keep our daily Bible reading from growing stale and putting us to sleep? Please understand, I’m not trying to be cynical. I want us to be honest and acknowledge a truth that we are often afraid to admit in public for fear we might sound unspiritual. So I’m going to give a few suggestions, then ask my Interim Ministry Partners to weigh in with a few suggestions as well.
So how do we enter into Jesus’ story and experience Immanuel?
First, we read Jesus’ story as our story. Rather than reading for the gathering of more facts, we are entering the story of our family, our heritage. We are looking through our family album and hearing from the person who lived the stories and made things happen!
Second, we remind ourselves that we are not reading about stuff from “long ago and in a galaxy far far away”! Instead, we are listening for the words of our living Lord who longs to walk with us through the daily twists and turns of our own complicated stories.
Third, we enter into the stories we read in Matthew by asking that the Holy Spirit will be present to speak to our hearts by helping us hear the Lord’s message for us this day in this passage and by helping us enter into the story as one who is really present — smelling the smells, hearing the inflections of the voices, and feeling the emotions of those who first heard the words and experienced these events. Rather than rushing through the story, the teaching, the miraculous event, we choose to pause and let the Spirit’s presence settle over us and move in us to make the presence of Jesus real.
Fourth, and most important of all, we ask Jesus to tell us what he wants us to hear and to take with us into our life. We ask Jesus what he wants us to know, what he wants us to feel, and what he wants us to put into practice from what we read from his story this day. We want the living Lord Jesus to speak into our lives about how we are to live today, this week, into the opportunities and challenges ahead. (For an example of this, you might want to take a look at aYearwithJesus.com or spend some time with the popular devotional book, Jesus Calling.)
Matthew’s first step into the Immanuel experience may not immediately appear to offer the “sizzle” of experiencing Immanuel in the ways the other three offer us.** However, approaching the gospel of Matthew as our story and our walk with Jesus can change everything for us. Inviting the Lord into our present moments so that our stories merge into his story can transform the words of Scripture into the voice of our living Lord.*** Before long, our hearts learn to connect with the Spirit and let this indwelling presence of Immanuel lead us “beyond the sacred page” to the place where Jesus is real in the moments of our own lives and we find that our spirits are filled with the Living Word for whom our souls hunger.
Comments, Reactions, and Questions from the Partners:
|I appreciate your honesty in saying openly what so many of us wrestle with inwardly: our experience of God is often shallower than we dare admit. I was struck by your reference to “the daily twists and turns of our own complicated stories.” Reflecting on my own experience, I realize that I experience God’s presence most clearly when my personal story is the most complicated. It’s at times when my problems seem overwhelming and I cry out to God in desperation that he becomes the most real to me. When I rely only on my own resources, confident of my ability to think and strategize my way through the maze, God becomes a concept rather than a presence. It seems to me that God did not give us Immanuel to provide moments of inspiration as we cruise down life’s freeway. Rather, he sent him because we need him. Without him, we’re hopeless cases. The more I’m in touch with that stark reality, the more vividly I experience God through Jesus.|
|Thanks Mark, you are right. We need to experience God’s presence and Immanuel‘s presence in our lives, and yes, for some of us, this experience is often more noticeable when our lives are most complicated. That’s when we’re driven to seek the Savior. The challenge is to know, rely, and engage in the presence of Immanuel in our daily “normal” living — not just in the crises! Hopefully this four week series can at least point us in the direction of how we can do this!|
|Phil — I am amazed at the Spirit’s timing. As you were writing your post, I was writing these words not knowing that you were also reading in Matthew: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3). As I reflected on that passage, I prayed, “Will we ever come to the place Jesus, where we long to not just know about your words — but be about them?” I do not think “knowing about” and “being about” create an “either/or” dynamic. I think “both/and” is more appropriate. With that said, I fear the repercussions of gravitating so far to the extreme of “knowing about.” We may know all there is to know about the book yet not grasp the heart’s desire of the Author.|
|Thanks Greg. My experience is that those who have grown up around Christianity have a much harder time than new Christians experiencing the message and doing the words of Jesus. Being seasoned in the church world, many of us have learned to gather data from Scripture — knowing about the story — rather than entering into the story. For new Christians, for whom everything is fresh and new, there is an excitement about knowing Jesus, not just knowing the words of his story. We have to have both! We have to read the story to get to Spirit-imagining — trusting that the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also is our internal guide to lead us into the story and find the Lord’s truth. Let’s ask the Spirit to help us find what Jesus wants us to know, feel, and do as we read the words of Jesus’ story.|
|One of the best ways I know to enter the Jesus story is to allow the events of his life to shine fresh light on our opinions of ourselves. Have you ever noticed we almost always identify with the heroes of Jesus’ stories and interactions? We are the disciples who leave their boats and follow (Matthew 4:18-22). We are the good soil (Matthew 13:1-23). We’re Peter, walking to Jesus on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). We are the woman who showed great faith (Matthew 15:21-28). We resist identifying with the weeds, the rocky soil, the other disciples cowering in the storm, or the Pharisees (never the Pharisees!).|
And so we evade the point and power of Jesus’ life and stories. We never really hear the words he would say to us because we’re too busy appropriating the words he says to the good guys. Sometimes, it’s the other words — the harder words — we need to hear most.
What if — in some of the stories told about Jesus in Matthew — we stand in the Pharisees’ shoes… or have more in common with the fickle crowd… or are among those clamoring for more miracles? What if we are, in fact, more like the thorny soil or the wandering sheep or the rich fool? What if it’s those words Jesus means for us to hear? Wouldn’t that change the way we experienced Immanuel? A less comforting Immanuel, no doubt, but a more authentic encounter of “God with us.”
|OUCH! Tim, you hit the nail on the head, and stepped on our toes at the same time! Yes, we can enter the story from all sorts of trajectories — where we are and finding a character in the Jesus story like us, seeing ourselves as the hero in the story, as the Pharisees or opponents of Jesus, as the whiny crowd wanting a miracle to believe, as the clueless apostles, as the sinner in need of grace, or as a townsperson whose lack of faith won’t allow Jesus to do miracles in our lives. Thanks for the reminder and challenge. With the Holy Spirit helping us as we read, each of these trajectories can be pathways to hearing the voice of Jesus as Immanuel in our lives today!|
All images courtesy of Free Bible Images.
* “Break Thou the Bread of Life” words by Mary A. Lathbury, 1877.
** Here are the four Immanuel sayings in Matthew and their focus.
Matthew 1:23 — Know the real Jesus through His Story.Matthew 18:20 — Live as Genuine Spiritual Family.Matthew 25:40 — Invest in Others through Acts of Compassion.Matthew 28:20 — Reach and Mentor others to live like Jesus.
*** Saying or singing the words to a great hymn normally confined to the Christmas season is a great way to invite Lord Jesus into our present moments as we read Scripture. That hymn is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from many contributors, but translated into English by John M. Neale, 1851.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel!
© Phil Ware. All rights reserved.
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