Those of us who are Radio 4 fans will know about the long running show Desert Island Discs. In this a well-known person is sent off to an imaginary desert island and asked to select their favourite tracks of music to accompany them while marooned on this island paradise. These provide the sound track to break up an interview about their life. At the end they get to choose a favourite book and are also given as a matter of course the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible. It is a format from a bye-gone age, where it was assumed that everyone would want both great works, indeed that they would also want a book. In a nod to other faiths, those who follow other religions can swap the Bible for another religious text, but there are many who won’t want any religious text and so won’t see it as having any value for them.
Today is Bible Sunday, a day to give thanks for the library of texts which make up the Bible. On its own, it is a pretty difficult book to get into. It does not follow a coherent chronology and needs guidance to have any hope of working out how to make sense of it. It contains many different types of writing from histories written with a particular purpose in mind, poetry, prayers, letters, collections of wise sayings and the pronouncements of prophets, stories galore – all with a point. It was written over roughly 1,000 years, has been edited and translated, and the art of translation is itself the selecting of a word from one culture to convey the meaning of a word or phrase from another, ancient culture. And frequently things are lost or changed in that translating. Some words are very hard to find an equivalent for.
What the Bible is not is the words of God captured by a note-taker and relayed with 100% accuracy. Just dump all that nonsense. For that we would need to learn the language of God and we don’t have that. What we do have is our own languages which are the product of so many different influences over millennia. Different cultures produce different languages. So when we open the Bible we do not find “God says”. This may sound like a blindingly obvious thing to say, but I hear it still and there are groups and churches who profess it. I think they turn many people off Christianity and the Bible, because it sounds completely ridiculous.
The Bible is a collection of writings infused with deep faith and they seek to make sense of the world and events in the light of that faith. So the Bible bears witness to faith in God, it is not God. It tells stories from moments in time and place and we often have to try to unpick what is really going on to understand the meaning. This is where we need the help of skilled scholars who devote their time to understanding it and as won’t surprise you they don’t all agree on everything. What never ceases to amaze me about the Bible texts is that I can come at passages I’ve heard many times and still discover new things in them. Despite its ancient provenance, they carry a wisdom that is inspirational for how we approach life today. It is the job of the preacher to try to make those connections between the ancient text, the faith it carries and the life we live. Sometimes it is only possible to do that with one element of the day’s readings or to draw on strands as a theme is explored. There is always much more than can be said and to be said.
The way we read the Bible in church services is both a help and a hindrance. Chopping up texts so that we are presented with slices out of context can be confusing and strikes against the notion that we need to know where something comes from to understand it. But Anglican worship is among the most Biblical going. On a given Sunday morning we are offered a four-course meal of Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel Readings. Over time, and that is part of the clue here, we get to hear a lot of it. That helps it enter into a deeper level of the brain and we can allow it to work on us and in us. And this needs to happen over time. A Bible faith is not an instant faith. It has to grow, to reflect, to struggle with the passages that sound either odd or at times vile. The Bible can express the darker side of the human psyche and there are times when ‘This is the word of the Lord’ is not at all helpful. It’s a phrase that was introduced into our liturgy 40 years ago and I’m not a great fan of it – I find it over narrow. I prefer either silence or a simple ‘Thanks be to God’ or just ‘here ends the reading’. You could of course combine them: ‘here ends the reading; thanks be to God’ but that might sound like you are just glad the reading is over.
Inspiration from the Bible, for me, comes not in the text itself but in the reading and reflecting on it. It is the connections that are made between its ancient wisdom and our contemporary lives. It is in being reminded of the hope and grace of God which guides us and holds us, which creates and redeems. It is in the process of blessing which comes through these that any notion of God speaking can be found. The words themselves are not the encounter in themselves. We commit a form of idolatry, bibolatry if you like, when we try to turn it into God’s words captured. If we learn anything from the Bible we should know that God refuses to be captured and boxed in by our limited visions and understandings. God always breaks out and springs up somewhere else to surprise and challenge us. Sometimes it is in the reading between the lines that wisdom comes, in the event depicted.
The Gospel reading gave us Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in his home town (Luke 4:16-24). He chooses the passage about the Spirit of the Lord being upon him, announcing good news to the poor, release from what binds, restored sight, liberation for the oppressed, and God’s blessing is found in these. He sets out his stall. That stall is radical, in the sense of taking them back to what lies at the foundation of their faith and identity. He is announcing himself as the one they have been looking for and therefore the one who will fulfill all the hopes and dreams, longing and aspirations of the religious texts we call the Bible. They are amazed because they know his home background and have seen him grow up. It’s hard to be a prophet when there are people around who can remember you as a teenager or worse a toddler. In this announcing he is presenting them with the interplay of words on the page and the Word of Life living among them. Words can call us to proclaim release, good news and healing, but we do have to do them. So we are not people of a book, as we are sometimes called, we are people of a person, Jesus Christ. We are people of the presence, of the incarnate presence of God among us and inspiring us.
So as we celebrate and give thanks for the Bible, we do this by reading it, by learning it, marking it and inwardly digesting it, because it is in that dynamic interplay between text and life that it lives and inspires.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd October 2016