May I speak in the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.
Today we take time to think about what the bible means to us individually and corporately. It is Bible Sunday, a time to focus on a book that is central to the Christian church. It is a book that both in its inception and preservation has been the source of division and great unity. We are not the only one’s who find ourselves gathered around a sacred text. Is there anything different about what we do and what our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu (the list could go on and on) brothers and sisters do with holy scripture? If we lost our ability to have and engage with this book, would it have any affect on our churches? On our lives?
What do we do with the Bible?
In our reading from Nehemiah, we hear of the people of Israel and their response to hearing the Law, their Scripture, read aloud to them. This reading tells us of the gathering of God’s people, ‘the men and women and those who could understand’, not unlike our gathering this morning. Ezra stands upon a pulpit of wood, flanked by others on his left and his right. And from here Ezra proclaims the word of God.
At this time the Israelites are slowly rebuilding their nation after years in exile. They have been scattered and broken, as a people, and even when they get themselves home they sink back into their cycle of idolatry and immorality. It is around this time of rebuilding that we read of Ezra, a priest, who sets out to teach the law of God and to see a nation restored in its worship, prayer and life. As Ezra reads out the Law we hear the people’s response, ‘all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.’ There was something about the dedication of the people to the words of this sacred text that caused the peoples to weep as they realised their sin. Ezra’s response is to tell them not to weep or mourn, wallowing in their own sins, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, for ‘This day is holy unto the Lord.’
The Law of God was read aloud, within the community and taught in a way that brought understanding. Through understanding the people make a response to God. I love how Ezra does not condemn the people for their response, he does not say, ‘No, no, no. You’ve got it all wrong. That is not the way to respond to hearing God’s law.’ Instead he says, ‘Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions for those who have nothing prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord.’ Instead of mourning and weeping we hear a call to make a delicious Sunday lunch and to provide for those who have no Sunday lunch prepared.
What do we do with the Bible?
Many of you will have heard little bits of my story, having grown up in both a different country and within a very different church context. Growing up, the bible was taught to me to be the infallible words of God – this holy book was the actual and absolute word of God, there were no errors. We were taught to have confidence in this book and its words. It was accurate, authoritative and trustworthy. This was our life line to know how God wanted us to live every part of our life and if we truly cared about our relationship to God, we would spend time everyday committed to reading God’s word. It was a measurable means of our devotion.
This view of the infallibility of Scripture came with a slightly hidden agenda, it became the very means of validating the biblical interpretation of our church. If the Bible was truly the accurate, authoritative and trustworthy words of God, then how we interpreted what those words meant, gave our interpretations the same accuracy, authority and trustworthiness. I, as with many others in our group of churches, realised that as we got older we were not reading the Bible for our selves. As we opened up Holy Scripture and set about to read and understand the words of God, we already had an interpretive lens that was not merely informing our commitment to this texts but was also defining what the text could say to us.
A simple example of this was with a reading of Genesis 3.22-23; this famous passage tells of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden of Eden. This text was always taught to me as a case study for what happens when we sin against God. If we do what God says we should not do, then we are punished. That sounds simple and straight forward, and, with a cursory reading of the text, seems like a valid interpretation. But when I was in a lecture during the beginning of my undergraduate biblical studies, one of our lecturers said, ‘What if the bible is not infallible in its very language and meaning, but is instead a collection of writings that seek to proclaim an accurate testimony of people’s relationship to a loving God?’ This same framework was spoken of by Revd Marek Zabriskie, Founder of the Bible Challenge, when he said that the Bible became something very different for people ‘As they began to read the Bible as a love letter from God.’ When I first heard this reframing I began to reread the bible and came across this passage in Genesis 3:22-23 and read, ‘Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.’ God sends Adam and Eve out from the garden so that they do not eat of the tree of life and so live forever in a broken, unredeemed state. What was taught as a fear tactic to enforce our need of obedience to God, spoke more of a loving Creator who could not bear to see creation stuck in its own brokenness.
What do we do with the bible?
There are many ways to read, listen, engage with, and interpret this Holy word. Some in our community have journeyed the past year with the Bible challenge, seeking to read the entire Scripture across the whole year. For other’s of us we have our own pattern of reading bits and pieces of texts, sometimes brought to us through the lectionary and our gathering of worship, sometimes through our own patterns and habits from years of devotion or tradition. For some of us it may fall under the category of must read, unless a film comes out based on this book. What ever way we come to the text, and with what ever lenses we bring, my one encouragement is that we keep doing it. Regardless of how we view the Bible, we must continue to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it.’ We are fortunate, with our technology and culturally developments to have access to the Bible in our own language and at our own finger tips – but, as we heard about in Nehemiah, there is something important about how we do this engagement together. Our tradition has instilled in its very liturgy the centrality of Bible to our community’s life and worship.
Over the past year we had regular meetings of those who were doing the Bible challenge as a chance to discuss the passages we read and the affect this regular practice has on our life. We will be doing something similar with the book, ‘Reflections for Daily Prayer’ – which is also available online or as an app for smartphones – as another way we read scripture perhaps in an individually corporate way. This book follows the daily lectionary readings for morning prayer. Every day one passage is selected as the focus for a short exposition and reflection. It is a way to build in regular practice of reading the bible and offers a simple way to expand what has been read. This is a practice we hold in our morning prayer that we say here at church. You are welcome to join us for prayer in the chapel or wherever you may find yourself to read and pray.
We have some other books at the back, books on lectio divina, the bible challenge, and we encourage you to take a look. Please talk to me or any of us on the clergy team if you have any questions about how to get rooted deeper in scripture and the reading, listening and engagement with this sacred love letter.
As we think about the Bible, this love letter from God, I encourage you to think about one way this year you can come at it from a different perspective, adjust your lenses and see something new. Allow the word of God, inspired by the living creator who loves you, to speak in fresh ways to you. Before you go to bed tonight, I challenge you to think about one way you can engage differently with the bible. Whether it is by using a new translation, following along reflections for daily prayer, getting an audio copy of the bible, reading one of Marek’s books, praying through the psalms each day, there was even one fellow from a church up north who tweeted the entire bible over a year. The possibilities are endless, but let us decide to do this together this year. So next year when we gather to celebrate bible Sunday, we may find ourselves deeper into the mysteries and love of God and find the desire to ask again…
What will I do with the bible?
What will we do with the bible?
What is being spoken through this love letter to the world?