The family sat down to play a new game yesterday. Actually it wasn't new, but we just opened it. Nobody knew how to play. When I came downstairs all I saw was a deck of cards, a bunch of red chips and a blue plastic doo-dad which, I figured, was to hold the cards. But what I didn't see was the rules. Unbeknownst to me, my 13 year old son was on the other side of the room with a white sheet of paper with the rules, trying to make sense of them. I, on the other hand, was staring at the blue thing, trying to make sense out of that. And I realized that without the rules, we might as well be playing poker or Old Maid or even tiddlywinks because there was no obvious point to these three pieces of gaming equipment all sitting together on the living room floor. Finally my son produced the sheet of rules and we sat down to play.
I love rules. Not because I'm a pastor and I like to control the lives of my congregation, but because without them we're lost. Think about it. Don't we appreciate it that we have laws to keep us from anarchy? Don't we like to have limits so we know how far we can push it? Isn't it great to have the law written out so that we can figure out how to cheat? From tax codes to professional sports rulebooks, we have standards spelled out and I contend we can't do without them. Sure some people cheat, but for the vast majority the rules not only keep us from going over the line, but it also pushes us up to the line. We are encouraged to live up to the rules.
The psalmist saved the longest chapter of the Bible to rave endlessly about God's Law. Psalm 119 reads almost like a love poem to a rulebook. "With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches." Now come on, have you ever felt that way about rules? Now consider that the Law the psalmist was carrying on about was the Old Testament Law -- not just the Ten Commandments, but all 513 or so laws given in the first five books of the Bible. It sounds too restrictive to rejoice over like getting a million dollar tax refund, but that's the attitude he sings about.
One of the big criticisms of Christianity is that it's simply a bunch of repressive rules designed to keep us in check. The psalmist disagrees vehemently. "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. . . Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them. The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands." This doesn't sound like a repressed man to me! He sounds thrilled silly!
Do we fully appreciate having the rules? Are we so busy worrying about what we can't do that we don't see how free we are? Do we not see how the rules push us toward Him? That's what Paul kept trying to tell us in his letters. The Law doesn't save. It shows us our sinfulness and points us to the Savior who lived up to the Law.
Many people set out to read the Bible all the way through, especially at the beginning of the year. Why don't most of those people complete that task? One word: Leviticus. We fly through Genesis, fueled by the excitement of a new task and the familiarity of many of the stories. Exodus begins with Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) and we get the stone tablets. Then in Leviticus, we start reading about burnt offerings and grain offerings and fellowship offerings and they all start to run together. Then we get the dietary laws which are exciting as reading a cookbook. Then it's disease and mildew and blood and about here we close up the book and turn on the TV. And we just can't go back to more rules about ceremonial uncleanness. The brain begins to scream, "NO! NOT THAT AGAIN! I CAN'T TAKE IT!" The way most people actually fulfill the pledge to read the whole Bible is with a schedule of readings -- one that doesn't let us die in the desert of Leviticus. We get a little more "meat" mixed in with the grain offerings.
I've been inspired (or maybe prodded by the Holy Spirit) to start a Bible reading schedule again. I haven't done this since I was in my twenties. As a pastor, I find myself in the Word a lot for sermon preparation and for teaching, but not nearly enough for devotional time. I've read biographies of pastors who at some point swear off reading all books but the Bible, and I think I understand why they would do that. I learn more from a passage of Scripture when I allow it to speak to me, instead of reading it to work it into a sermon. And I certainly need more of that in my life. And I know that the only way that's going to happen is if I have a schedule -- a set of rules which tells me what to read and when to read it. Again the rules come to the rescue!