This is the second sermon this week, especially for Bible Sunday. This one is from Mother Anne-Marie which was preached at a neighbouring church.
On Bible Sunday we celebrate the most popular – but the most un-read – 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.
As someone who grew up in a church going family I knew bits of the Bible from the readings on Sundays, and I even took an O Level in Religious Education as an extra in the 6th form because it interested me. RE was then primarily based on Biblical material and I learnt a lot about the Gospels, their structure and dating, as well as gaining a greater understanding of the life of Jesus and his teaching.
After a period of atheism, I was “converted” to Christianity at the age of 29 and once again started to study Christianity and read the Bible. I did a course in the New Testament, and subsequently was accepted to train as a Lay Reader in the Church of England and undertook study of both Old and New Testament on the London University diploma course. My knowledge of the Bible was growing.
Although by this time I was probably reading the Bible on a daily basis as part of morning and evening prayer, and studying particular passages to prepare sermons, I realise in retrospect that it had still not come alive for me.
The Bible had been enriching my life and journey in many ways and I enjoyed reading it for the understanding it gave me of what was going on in the life of the prophets or of Jesus, and I loved drawing out the theological explanations; but it wasn’t until around 1989, when with our young children, we were at the Spring Harvest Christian festival in Minehead, that I heard God speak to me personally through the Bible.
I was particularly confused at the time 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 full time ministry? (I was already a Lay Reader). At one of the Bible studies that Eastertide at Spring Harvest, 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!
The Bible isn’t however 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 is not divine dictation in the way that Moslems 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 says, ‘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. Once a month on a Thursday morning at St John’s Church, after the 10 a.m. Communion Service, a small group of us have what we call “a Bible Conversation”. Over coffee and cake we engage with a passage of the Bible, usually one of the readings from the Communion Service that has preceded our gathering. 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.
It is good as we read the Bible, or have this sort of Bible conversation with others, to be open to it at three levels – the historical, the theological and the personal or mystical. The first is the historical level. At those Thursday conversations, I always start by filling people in about context – what historical period we are in, what was going on at the time, what were the issues for the people then.
Think about our Old Testament Reading this morning for instance – it is important to know the events take place some years since the people have returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon – the Temple had been rebuilt 70 years previously, but the walls of Jerusalem had been left in ruins because of opposition to their rebuilding from neighbouring states. Nehemiah’s task had been to rebuild the walls and the occasion we heard about today in our reading was the celebration of that rebuilding. But Nehemiah does not just want to rebuild walls he wants to rebuild faith, there has been some back sliding in the keeping of the Jewish Law since return from the Exile. So he brings the people together in celebration, and takes the opportunity to ask the priest Ezra to read from the Law of Moses. It needs interpretation because now it is in an archaic language that most people do not speak. You need to know that background to understand what is going on. If you are reading the Bible on your own, it is why it is worth having a Bible with good introductions to each book which will fill you in about this, and one that has footnotes, to explain difficult terminology or connect you to other bits of the Bible.
The second level at which a 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?” Well again, if we are looking at Nehemiah, we might remind ourselves of our Jewish heritage, that we share the same God as these people gathered in the fourth century BCE. We might want to explore how our view God is different because we believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and have his take on the place of the Jewish Law and what is central to it – love. But we might want to reflect on how the Word of God in Scripture was central to these people in Jerusalem 24 centuries ago and is still central to us now. We might want to think about how the pattern of our services includes a reading of scripture and an interpretation in the form of a sermon. We have inherited that from our Jewish forebears.
The third level of interpretation and application is the personal or mystical one. The one that came to me at that Spring Harvest through the words of Jeremiah. So here we would be concerned with the impact of this passage is on our inner lives and resulting behaviour. Can I hear God speaking to me through these words? Can I hear the promise of good news? We don’t have to be directly reading the words of Jesus in the Gospels to hear his Good News. It is there in the Old Testament too and of course there in things like Paul’s letters. This passage from Nehemiah might seem remote, but we might be moved that people wept when they heard the Law read. The Scriptures were precious to them and had largely been forgotten. They could not reach a book down from a shelf to read it. Hearing it again touched them greatly. We might be moved to thanks that we have access to the Bible so readily. Something might speak to us about “the day being Holy” – do we revere the Holy Days God has given us, including every Sunday? We may hear God speak through these words to go and celebrate, have a good time – our faith is not a miserable one! We may hear the words to remember the poor – “to send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared”. There is a message there for all of us. It may be a simple phrase from this passage of Nehemiah that resonates with us – what about “the joy of the Lord is your strength”. That maybe all we want to take from this passage today and that maybe God’s word to us at this particular time. This is the level of interpretation where we start to converse with God about our life through what is in the passage of scripture. This is how the Bible can feed the sacred centre of our lives and lead us into prayer and transformation.
Bible Sunday invites us to return to our core document with the same enthusiasm that the Jewish people at the time of Nehemiah returned to theirs. Yes, the Bible is complex. It’s a library of 66 or 73 books, depending which Bible you have, written over hundreds of years. But don’t let that complexity put you off, but instead let it invite you to an engagement with the living God and his word to you for your life now. Amen.