Bible Sunday - Team Service at Grateley
I was once asked to play a selection of songs from the musical Porgy and Bess in a concert, and as I went through it I found myself playing the song that goes “It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you read all about in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so”. Nice one, Vicar.
We hear portions of the Bible in church, we read our bibles at home, occasionally you might have to swear on it, holding it on your right hand as a test that what you are saying is really true. In fact there’s a rather nice story about an elderly lady who had to go to a solicitor’s office to swear and affidavit about something, and when she was due, they couldn’t find the office bible anywhere. But someone had a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary so they took the paper cover off and it looked a dark blue sober volume, so she was handed that to use, which she did, and they thought, phew! Couple of days later a small wrapped parcel is handed in to reception and when they open it they find a nice new copy of the King James bible.
But what we heard today was quite a mixed bag of readings: from the Old Testament we had the description of Ezra reading the Law of Moses to the gathered people who had returned from years exile in Babylon. It didn’t make for comfortable reading, it went on for hours and it was pouring with rain. No doubt Ezra had an umbrella. It was extremely critical of their ways of life they had adopted in exile, and sad to say it was laying down the basis for a new kind of exclusivism which went on to cause big trouble in future generations;
From the New Testament, a quite lovely passage about how the Christian community ought to live together in peace and harmony: it’s a timeless piece of writing that every generation of the church can sign up to, I use it quite a lot at Baptisms when one is trying to find something concise to commend to a family who are unfamiliar with just about everything we do.
Then from the gospel a slightly puzzling passage from Jesus, which begs loads of questions and really needs a whole sermon in itself to unpack it and get to grips with it.
Two nice ones and another that is a bit user unfriendly. And on most Sundays there will be passages that we love to hear, passages that we puzzle over, stories that we can remember, and bits where we want to bang the book shut in fury and exclaim as once happened “This??? Is the word of the Lord!?”
It seems to me that “The Word of the Lord” isn’t really the words on the page. Christianity has never regarded scripture as the dictated word of God, but the inspired word of god – and there is a difference. Many Muslims would regard the Koran as the dictated word of God, hence the careful way they look after the actual book and treat it with reverence, never putting it on the floor, for example. The way we treat our bibles is a lot more cavalier and familiar, and a really well used bible will have scuffed edges, the odd coffee stain, and probably quite a few pencil marks in the text. That is no disrespect, it is a sign that it has been well used.
We know that actual the words are of course a translation from Hebrew and Greek, in some cases a translation from a translation! They are the work of men and women over several centuries, attuning themselves to God as they perceived him. But their ability to reveal the purposes of God was limited by their own cultural and national limitations, and so we cannot deny that there of some passages which come across to our generation as cruel and heartless – for example those of parts of the Old Testament that describe the way the Israelites on the march through Canaan slaughtered the tribes as they went. Some passages cannot be for us The Word of the Lord.
Our Bible is Literature, laws, letters, stories, dreams. It’s a whole library between hard covers. So when we read it, we almost need different lenses, to look at it; the way you read Leviticus (assuming that one would – though I sometimes wonder why) Is different from the way you read a Gospel, and the way you read the Psalms is different again from an Epistle. Parts of the Old Testament date from the Bronze age, and yet we are reading it in the age of smart phones and twitter. When it comes to the Epistles, (which are a bit like reading somebody else’s post) we almost have to do historical sociology before we can make sense of what is being said and why; and so many of the stories, both those about Jesus and other people too, circulated by word of mouth for some years before they were written down, and those who wrote them down were not trying to be historians or biographers, but creating a narrative (as it says at the end of Ch 20 in St John’s gospel) so that people would hear and come to believe.
Its message is continually unfolding through the work of academics and theologians, archaeologists and theologians. But at the same time it is unfolding in our lives as we engage with these texts and find in them a message which shapes our lives, challenges us to change, comforts us in distress and brings us hope ad identity. For us, the central person is Jesus and if it wasn’t for our faith in him we probably wouldn’t be engaging with it at all, and as Marcus Borg, a biblical teacher from the States, put it so well – Jesus is the lens through which we read the scriptures.
So today we give thanks for the Bible, we give thanks for those who God inspired to commit the words to parchment, we give thanks for those who protected the scrolls over those early and vulnerable years, we remember those who in the early centuries deliberated over which books to include. We give thanks for those who translated it into English, and in many cases suffered great cruelty from the state and the church in order that this could be done. And still the work of translation goes on as languages are discovered into which there has yet been no translation. And we give thanks for those who make the bible available, for example the Gideon society who place bibles in hotel rooms and give them out to schools, we give thanks for the ready availability of the Bible which is greater for us now than ever before through the internet, and bible apps on phones.
It’s very available – but do we actually read it? Not going to put anyone on the spot here, but if it’s been some time since you did actually read it very much (apart from hearing the readings in church) can I commend you a little task to do to prepare for Advent (you’ve got a month). And that’s to take a gospel and just read it through, like a novel. Mark is 16 chapters, Luke is 24, Matthew is 28 and John is 21; so that’s easily a chapter a day between now and Advent Sunday.
And if you’ve done this, that will be a very positive way of preparing for Christmas, to remind yourself what the baby did when he grew up, and what Jesus is for each of us, in this world and the next.