Last Sunday was the last Sunday after Trinity. In the Church of England we have the option of keeping it as Bible Sunday. At St. John’s we always do so, because of the importance of encouraging people to read and live by God’s Word to us. This year Mother Anne-Marie was preaching. Here’s what she said.
On Bible Sunday we celebrate the most popular – but the most unread – book in the world. Under-read in Britain and Western Europe at any rate! But this is the book on which civilisations have been founded, for which people have given their lives in the fires of the Reformation period, and for which people still risk everything so they can smuggle it into repressive countries. And yet for many of us, though we own one of these precious books, it sits on our shelves, undisturbed.
Jesus was much more respectful of the scriptures. In today’s Gospel reading from Luke we see him affirming three essential elements of Judaism – the scriptures, the Sabbath and the synagogue. All adult males were permitted to read the scriptures and to comment on them, in the somewhat informal synagogue service. Jesus honoured the Book at this Sabbath service, and read from Isaiah 61.1-2. He then made one of his most daring claims ever, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Not only was he defining what his messianic role was, he was also identifying it with himself. The passage from Isaiah shows that the messiah would bring to reality the longings and hopes of the poor, oppressed and imprisoned, and would also usher in the amnesty and liberation associated with the year of jubilee. ‘And, as he sat down he basically said “and the messiah who’s going to do that is me.’
At first the other worshippers are amazed, but then their amazement turns to anger. Had we read on in Luke’s Gospel, we would have had heard how the people of his home town tried to throw him off a cliff.
What we see here is Jesus’ utter commitment to the hallowed words of Scripture he had known since childhood, but we also see how Jesus understood their radical potential. It was this constant radicalising of the Law that was to continually get him into trouble, rather than his flouting of it. We take the Bible too much for granted. We do not realise the potential of the precious book we have. Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisations to pieces, turn the world upside down, and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it’s nothing more than a piece of literature!’
Bible Sunday invites us to return to our core document with the same enthusiasm that Jesus went to his, and that Jews and Muslims today go to theirs. Yes, it’s complex. It’s a library of 66 or more (depending on your denomination and depending which Bible you have) written over hundreds of years. It has many different genres – law, history, poetry, prayers, love songs, visions in the night, letters and apocalyptic visions, as well as the particular, thrilling form of narrative we call gospel – good news. But let that complexity invite engagement, not avoidance.
For the last few months, on the third Thursday of the month after the 10 a.m. Communion Service, a group of us, mainly Mothers Union members, have engaged with a passage of the Bible over coffee and cake. It is amazing where the discussions have taken us. Through the words of scripture – just taking one of the readings from the service, we have talked not just about God, but about the issues in our world and in our personal lives, and found that the words of scripture connect to our lives now and draw us closer to the God we worship.
The Bible isn’t magic, nor is it a code book, nor is it omniscient as some Christians seem to treat it – only God is omniscient. But it is God’s book. It is God’s book for us, and our book about God. The Bible’s understanding of itself is that it’s not divine dictation in the way that Moslem’s believe the words of Koran were revealed to Mohamed by the Angel Gabriel. Nor is it like the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith claimed was a translation of ancient golden plates written by the prophets, that, through the guidance of an Angel, he found buried near his home in Palmyra, New York! We know the Bible was written by different people in different time periods, but we do believe it is ‘God-breathed’, with shafts of beauty and truth breaking through everywhere. We know God still speaks through it, not by us taking it literally, but through us engaging with it, analysing it in different ways and in understanding the context in which it was written. We believe it was “God-breathed” as people wrote it, and that it is “God-breathed” now as we engage with it and interpret it for our lives and our age.
So how shall we read it? One answer is, with head, heart and hands – head to grapple with it, heart to love God through it, hands to obey what God says in it. More subtly the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks say, ‘The Bible isn’t a book to be read and put down. It’s God’s invitation to join the conversation between heaven and earth.’
The idea of a conversation is a fruitful one. I think it is that sort of conversation we have been having at our Thursday morning Bible discussions. It is good as we read the Bible, or have a Bible conversation with others to be open to it at three levels. The first is the historical level. In today’s reading about Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth we want to know what happened and why, what it meant to the various players and how it fitted into the whole story Luke is telling us. There are plenty of questions to be asked “what was 1st century synagogue worship like”, “why did Jesus chose to read that passage?”, and “what can we infer from the inconsistent reactions of the other worshippers?” A commentary to the book of the Bible we are reading, or a Bible with good commentary notes at the bottom of the page, can help us with this.
A second level at which the passage can be read is theological. The question here isn’t so much “what happened back then?”, but “what does it mean for our understanding now?” This passage introduces us to the idea of the Messiah as a servant of the poor and oppressed, rather than a military leader who could drive out the nation’s enemies. So we are being invited to see the kind of Saviour Jesus is, the kind of God, God is. What does it mean to have a God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed? What does it mean to have a Saviour who won’t go down the old road of violence to achieve his ends? Ultimately the old ways will only be defeated on a cross.
A third level of interpretation and application is the personal or mystical one. What we’re concerned with here is the impact of this passage on our inner lives and resulting behaviour. Can I hear Jesus reading those words to me? Can I hear the promise of good news, release from whatever it is that holds me captive, recovery of sight where I simply can’t see where truth and love should take me, freedom from the various things I sense oppressing me? How can I respond to this liberating announcement of a new day, a new opportunity to enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God? This is the level of interpretation where the sacred centre of my life is fed and changed. This is the Bible leading us into very deep prayer.
The Bible is captivating and enthralling, sharp-edged and challenging. And for Christians it’s unavoidable. Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 45 says ‘from my mouth has gone forth… a word that shall not return.’ It’s out there; it won’t go away; we have to wrestle with it. But scripture is not there as an obstacle course. As our other reading from Romans 15 assures us, ‘whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.’
I will end with a personal story. The Bible has enriched my life and journey in many ways and I love reading it for the understanding it gives me of what was going on in the life of the prophets or of Jesus, and I love drawing out the theological explanations; but what lives with me is when God speaks to me personally through its words.
When our children were young we went to the Spring Harvest Christian festivals where we heard some excellent Bible teaching as our children had fun in their own activities. At one of these Eastertide gatherings I was particularly confused about what I should be doing with my life – should I be concentrating on being a wife and mother? Should I be returning to work as a social worker? Or should I be offering myself for ministry? And at one of the Bible studies God spoke to me through the words of Jeremiah. It was Jeremiah Chapter 29 verse 11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
They weren’t words written for me. Originally they were written for a Nation. But they sprang out as God’s words for me at that time. They didn’t give me an answer. But they gave me confidence in God’s presence and in his love for me. I felt confident he was going to look after me and when the time was right the plan would be obvious. And so it was!
Don’t let your Bible gather dust on the shelf. Get it down, open it up. Get some Bible Study notes. Come to the Thursday group if you can. Use this precious collection of books to learn more about God, the world and yourself. Amen.
With acknowledgement to Rt Rev John Pritchard’s Sermon Notes for Bible Sunday on the Bible Society Website.