About ten days ago, at a meeting for training incumbents, in other words for vicars who have curates working with them, I heard an interesting exchange about the Bible. One priest asked another how he brought scripture into his pastoral work – didn’t he like to have a quote for every occasion? And the other one said he operated in a different way. He knew the Bible very well but he mined it for stories that raised questions, rather than try to find a verse to answer every question, thereby closing down discussion.
I’ll give you an interesting example that he gave. I am sure you remember how the people of Israel asked God for a king, so they could be like other nations. God was reluctant to grant this request but in the end he gave them Saul, who turned out to be a bit of a disaster. So he was replaced by young David. This handsome young shepherd boy went into battle against the giant Goliath with just a slingshot and five smooth stones, refusing to don the king’s armour, which was far too big and heavy for him. And he brought down his huge opponent with his well-flung stones.
But then David eventually became king himself, and he began to use his power to abuse others. In particular, he arranged for his general Uriah to be killed in battle so that he, David, could marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, with whom he had been committing adultery. Our speaker said, the problem with David was that he became Goliath. And one of the great dangers for the Church is that, called to be David, armed only with the good news of the gospel, we are tempted to become a top-heavy powerful organization, in the business of defending God’s name rather than living in the kingdom of God with its priority for the poor, the weak and the outsider. The Church too may have become Goliath. And now we are like that overgrown giant, no longer light on our feet, burdened with armour we don’t need and can’t use, unable to move in response to the Spirit. This is a challenge from the Bible that we need to think about very carefully and creatively.
Now to turn to an actual quote from the Bible, here is a verse from today’s gospel: ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ This seems to me to sum up the problem. Christians sometimes feel that if we just look closely enough at the Bible, we will find the killer verse for every problem. All the answers must be there.
But Jesus says, that while the scriptures testify to him, we must come to him to have life. The Bible points us to Christ. That is its function. And though we read the Hebrew scriptures as written in their own context and by and for the Jewish people, we as Christians call also see how Christ is working through them to bring us the good news of what God is like. As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’ The reference to Moses writing about Jesus means that the Hebrew scriptures show us God at work in the world, and we name that incarnate God as Jesus Christ.
Today is Bible Sunday. This doesn’t mean that we think about the Bible today and ignore it the rest of the year. We are invited to think today about how we read the Bible, how it informs our belief and influences our lives. As Christians we are to take the Bible seriously, which is a different thing from taking it literally. People have tied themselves up in knots over many centuries trying to link events in the Bible with history and science. The point is this: how are we changed by the Bible stories? What questions do they offer us? What pointers to a relationship with God in Christ do they provide?
When we read the Bible regularly, engage with it seriously, and come to know it well, we will value it more and more in these ways. It will provoke, astonish, comfort, challenge and delight us. If we don’t know the Bible, we can’t engage fully with our faith as mature Christians. We just won’t have the raw material for our spiritual development. And not only that – we will miss out massively on understanding and appreciating our cultural heritage, which is soaked in Biblical narratives, language and images.
We are starving ourselves, and our children, when we allow ourselves to live in ignorance of the Bible, or to confine ourselves to knowing a few of the famous stories out of context. So this Bible Sunday, I am laying down another Bible Challenge to all of us. Or rather, three Bible Challenges, so that there is one for everyone.
The first challenge is to read the whole Bible in a year, from beginning to end. This is the classic challenge that many of us completed a year ago, and may well want to do again. Perhaps this time we can read it in a different translation, or even a different language. Every day there are three chapters of the Old Testament to read, one psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament. If you’re really greedy, instead of starting to reread the New Testament towards the end of the year, you can read the whole of the Apocrypha instead. These are the Old Testament books that have always been in the Roman Catholic Bible but were considered somewhat second-rate by the Protestant reformers, who preferred to use the shorter Jewish canon. So they were relegated to a separate section between the Old and New Testaments. They contain some terrific stories, I can tell you.
That’s the first challenge. The second is to do what many of you have been doing this year, reading the lectionary readings that are read by the clergy at the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. This means that there is a short reading from the Old Testament, a short reading from the New Testament, and a psalm or psalms for each day. These readings take account of the Church year, so they reflect the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and so on. They are a manageable length, but for some people they are too short to be satisfying, and they jump around from book to book according to the time of year. If you want to accept this challenge, then there is a book on the shop table called Reflections for Daily Prayer which you can buy that will give you the references for each day’s reading and a short piece to help you think about one of the readings.
But this year we have a new challenge to offer you, and it is going to be supported by our new Bishop Rob across the whole Edmonton Area. This is an all-age challenge. Every week there is one story from the Old Testament, going in chronological order, to really get to grips with. Usually it focuses on a character, a man or a woman, who is the main figure in the story. We will provide you with the chapter and verse references so you can read the whole story in whatever version of the Bible you prefer. We will also point you to several children’s Bibles that retell the stories in an accessible way for different age groups.
We invite you as individuals or as families to really chew over the story each week. Get to know it well. Think how it might raise questions for you here and now, like the David and Goliath story that presents a challenge to the Church. Discover the character and personality of the main figures. Imagine what it would be like to be part of their adventure. And here is one important part of the challenge: we’ll give you one verse from the story that we will ask you to memorize, to help you keep the story in your heart forever.
When I walked on the Camino to Santiago ten years ago, I had a pilgrim passport. Every place I stopped along the way, I got a stamp in my passport. When I reached Compostela after 500 miles of walking, I showed my passport to the cathedral authorities and I was given a certificate in Latin to say that I had completed the pilgrimage. I am proud to hang it on the wall of my study in the vicarage.
We’re going to do something similar. If you take part in the all-age Bible Challenge, whether you are an adult, a teenager or a child, you will have the opportunity to have a Bible passport. Each week, if you are able to say the memory verse by heart, you will be given a stamp in your passport. And at the end of the year, Bishop Rob is going to present certificates to everyone who completed the challenge. If it goes well and we enjoy it, we’ll do a New Testament all age challenge next year.
Now we will need some help to make this work. I would like to recruit a number of people to be listeners. Each week they will be ready to hear others say their memory verse, and then they will stamp the passport. I think it would be particularly good if some of the older members of our congregation could offer this service to the younger ones. Some of you may even remember doing memory verses yourselves when you were at Sunday school many years ago.
Today Terry and Andrea are bringing their daughter Megan to be baptized. Terry is one of the people who did the original Bible Challenge. I hope as a family you will decide to take up the all age challenge with Jack and Max. There is no better way for a family to help their children start to learn the Christian faith than to read the Bible together.
If you would like to commit yourself to one of the challenges, you can sign up at the back of church today or in the coming weeks. And you can look at the various Bibles and commentaries at the church shop. You can also sign up to be a listener. I hope this will be a year in which all of us soak ourselves in the Bible stories and grow in knowledge, faith and enjoyment together.