Sermon for Bible Sunday 2016
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I stayed up most of the night on Wednesday in order to watch the final debate on TV between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two main candidates for President of the United States. There was a surreal moment towards the end of the debate. Donald Trump was asked by the moderator if he would accept the outcome of the election. His reply was “I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
In those few words, the constitutional framework of a 240-year-old democracy was undermined. I had to pinch myself to realize that it was the official candidate of the party of Abraham Lincoln who had actually said them. Anyone who grew up in the States reveres Lincoln as perhaps our greatest President, the man who used his tremendous gifts at a time of crisis to reunite a divided nation, to form a successful Cabinet from a team of political rivals, and to end the curse of slavery. He was a self-taught backwoodsman with a drunkard for a father, and he owned only a handful of books. The one that shaped his character and his world-view was the Bible. He called it “the best gift God has ever given to man…But for it we could not know right from wrong.”
He was not the only American President who was formed by Bible reading. John Adams, the second President, read the Bible from cover to cover every year of his life, even when he was occupying the highest office in the land. Andrew Jackson, the seventh President, referred to the Bible as “the rock on which our Republic rests.” He read three to five chapters of the Bible each day. President Jimmy Carter, now in his 90s, continues to read the Bible daily, and he still teaches a Sunday school class regularly.
In an interview in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Hillary Clinton was asked, “If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?” She replied, “At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”
Donald Trump also claimed once that the Bible is his favourite book. He couldn’t quote a favourite verse, but some months after first being asked he came up with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Perhaps he didn’t realize that this is not a call for retribution but a divine limit to seeking revenge. He might need to attend some of Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school lessons.
So universal was the appreciation of the Bible in previous generations that for nearly 75 years Desert Island Discs has made an automatic present of the Bible to its castaway guests, alongside the complete works of Shakespeare. The assumption was that otherwise everyone would pick the Bible as their one and only book.
Sadly, it seems that times are changing. A poll a few days ago reported that only 31% of British people would choose to take the Bible to their desert island. Another 13% were unsure. Twice as many over-65s, 39%, wanted a Bible, compared to 18-24-year-olds, of whom only 18% did.
The chair of the Church and Media Network who commissioned the poll said, “Whether you are a Christian or not, the Bible is an amazing book that gives accounts of life, love and hope. It is wonderfully rich in texture, containing histories, letters, poetry and much more, describing the human condition, family, and the wrestling with all that life has thrown at humankind throughout the centuries: triumph, despair, courage, grief, redemption and hope. As Christians we also happen to believe that it is not just a piece of literature, but God’s word. I cannot think of a better book to take with me if I were to be stranded on a desert island.”
Of course many people still have a Bible in their house, perhaps a gift from primary school or a godparent decades ago. They are often beautiful leather-bound editions with thin paper edged in gold. They don’t look much a book that you would be likely to open and read. I remember when I used to teach on the mother and baby unit of Holloway Prison that newborns often had a presentation Bible of this type tucked into their cots with them. They were seen as a talisman of protection rather than a book to open.
But perhaps that showed a sense of the value of the Scriptures in the eyes of the mother. In their difficult circumstances, they still of course wanted the very best for their child, and putting a Bible beside their baby was a way of claiming everything good for them. They wanted them to grow up in the right way, and not make a similar mess of their life.
In recent days I’ve had several conversations with parents of young children in our school and church, and what I hear again and again is how much they want their children to be given a moral education, to have their characters formed to be kind and honest, brave and compassionate, humble and unselfish. They know how hard it is to do this in our superficial celebrity culture. In a world where young people are told to weigh their worth by their physical attractiveness and social popularity, these parents want their children to know that they are unconditionally loved by their families and by God. They want them to understand that they valued for themselves and not because of their accomplishments on Facebook or Instagram.
It is often when we become parents that we revisit the values we were brought up with. We look for wells of wisdom to draw from, for support in bringing up our children in the right way. We look for a community in which those values are shared and upheld.
So I think it is particularly appropriate that Jason and Jennifer are bringing Amarah to be baptized on the day when we observe Bible Sunday. At St Mary’s we have been discovering that reading the Bible is not just an old-fashioned pious activity for those who like that sort of thing. It is a transformational practice. When we commit ourselves to engaging with the Scriptures every day, we discover that God speaks to us through those words and changes our lives.
Look at what happened when Jesus went back to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The words he read could have been words of fire: The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. When he looked around and told the congregation that the day for this action to begin had arrived, they were electrified. The Bible means business. When we read the Scriptures regularly, we become people who stand up for the poor, the captives and the oppressed. We cannot read those words and remain untouched by them.
At St Mary’s we know how the words of Isaiah that Jesus quoted are brought to life in our community youthwork by Jason and his colleagues. The unconditional love that is shown to young people who are at risk of so many dangers is a precious thing in their lives, a transformational gift. And today Jennifer and Jason, together with the godparents they have chosen, will commit themselves to bring up Amarah to read the Bible and to act upon it. They want to form her in the right way, and show her that she is loved not only by her parents but also by God.
Today on Bible Sunday, I want to invite all of you to consider again how you might make Bible reading a regular part of your daily life. In a few weeks we will be launching our fourth Bible Challenge at St Mary’s. Once again you can commit to reading the whole Bible in a year. Or you can choose to read the lectionary readings along with the ministry team, as part of our daily prayer. Or, this year, we will offer a reading plan for families that will take you through the characters in the New Testament week by week. More details will follow soon.
In the meantime, please see the display of Bibles in the chapel after the service, and visit the church shop if you want to buy a Bible or a children’s Bible, or a lectionary, or a book of short reflections on the daily readings.
In just a few moments we will celebrate the liturgy of baptism. It begins by asking all of us in this church family if we will welcome Amarah and uphold her in her new life in Christ. The best way to do this, and to welcome and uphold every young life in our congregation, is to become people of the Bible. It is never too late, or too early, to start.