The Living Word of God

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 27 October 2019. You can read it again here:

If you enjoy reading novels, you will probably have strong views when authors you love are adapted for the screen. You have imagined the characters and the locations. Do they match what is in your head, or has the television got it all wrong? Or perhaps they help to make the characters real for you. I suspect most of us fail to separate Harry Potter from Daniel Radcliffe, who played him in the films.  And Colin Dexter, who wrote the Inspector Morse novels, is said to have deliberately made his central character more like John Thaw as he continued to write after the television series became popular. On the other hand, for many people screen adaptations of books like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale have become in an introduction to a new author that had passed them by before. Seeing stories on the screen can bring them to life.

Today is Bible Sunday when we focus on appreciating the written words of God. A library rather than a single coherent whole, we have a book like no other book, frustrating, difficult to understand, in parts shocking, in parts beautiful, containing words that will have shaped the lives of all of us here today.

Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath day, where he will have heard the scriptures read week by week. He had what we now refer to as the Old Testament, the history of the Jews starting at the very beginning with the creation of the world, through Abraham the father of the nation, their journey from being slaves in Egypt to the promised land. Then, after a brief period of prosperity, the story continues as they were annexed by one empire after another and the leaders of the nation carried off to exile in Babylon. There are books of poetry and wise sayings, and books of prophecy. The passage that Jesus is given to read on the day he stood in the synagogue is from Isaiah, a book written, probably by more than one person, around the time of the exile to Babylon. By the time of Jesus, this passage was taken to refer to events still in the future, when a messiah, the chosen one of God, would bring God’s kingdom on earth, perhaps even liberating them from the Roman occupation. We don’t know whether Jesus had spoken in the synagogue before. We don’t know whether he had chosen the passage or whether someone else picked it. But what we do know is that Luke tells us this story right after he reports Jesus’ baptism and retreat to the wilderness. Jesus had been teaching and healing people elsewhere, but Luke doesn’t give us any details. This passage for Luke marked, if you like, Jesus setting out his manifesto.

I wonder what the congregation expected? Perhaps they were quite proud of Jesus, who they had known all his life, or perhaps some thought him an upstart. They heard the familiar words, and as he sat down to preach, every eye was fixed on him.  Now, strangely, Luke only gives us one sentence of the sermon. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. John puts it differently in his gospel “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Up until Jesus, the word of God had been primarily the scriptures.  Now it had become a human being. I say primarily, because there are instances to prepare us for new ideas. St John, at the beginning of his gospel, deliberately echoes the first verse in the bible. “In the beginning…” and in Genesis chapter one it is the words that God speaks that brings creation into being starting with “Let there be light”. The spoken word became the written word and is now, standing in front of the congregation of a small village synagogue in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, the incarnate word. The word has become a human being. The story has become alive.

The Bible has to be handled with care. The more we read it, the less simple it becomes. We find passages in the Old Testament where God appears to be ordering ethnic cleansing in the Promised Land, and the New Testament is not exempt from controversy. All those women not wearing hats are failing to comply with a clear instruction of St Paul. At a more serious level the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things. Slavery, witch hunts and wars, notably the crusades, have all been justified by appeal to Scripture. In our own day there are Christians in America that believe we should use up the planet’s resources as quickly as possible to hasten the second coming, and the issue of gay marriage that threatens to split the Anglican communion has people on both sides quoting scripture. In some cases, there is a cynical searching of the Bible to find proof texts to justify prejudices already held, but it has to be said that many people of goodwill have read their Bibles and honestly come to different conclusions to us. I am absolutely sure that in 100 years’ time Christians will shudder at some of the beliefs you and I hold. The trouble is, I have no idea which ones.

So how do we do the best we can? Well firstly we must take the Bible as a whole. If we look to narrowly at one verse, one story, or even one book we will be misled. All the books in the Bible are there for a reason – they tell the story from creation through the dawning awareness of a loving God in the history of the Jewish people, and the yearnings of those people fulfilled in the coming of Jesus as a human being and his death on the cross. The story continues with writings from the earliest churches learning to live out the new faith. Taken as a broad sweep, comparing one book with another, we find themes emerging from the whole. And the story of Jesus is central – everything else prepares us for his coming or reflects on its implications. He stands there in the middle the focus of both past and future, the living Word towards which all other words point. That is the reason we stand for the gospel, and not the other readings. We are not giving a special honour to those books of the Bible, but to their central character, our living Lord.

Yet, in turn what we know about Jesus is in the form of the written word, four accounts, each with its own focus and intention. A few years ago, we were told to ask ourselves what Would Jesus Do before we made ethical choices. Good as far as it goes, but limited in application. Jesus was a first century Jew and to ask what he might have thought about, for instance, the balance between keeping the elderly alive at all costs and compassionate euthanasia, will get us nowhere. He came from a culture that could not begin to understand the medical issues. But what we have is a body of teaching by Jesus – the sermon on the mount and the parables, for example, and the stories about how he behaved. By studying the gospels, we get to know the character of Jesus, we can seek to base our attitudes and behaviour on his, and from that point we can make our decisions. Not so much What Would Jesus Do, but what should I do that is faithful to his example.

In South Africa, after the second world war Apartheid was enshrined in law. It was the system that kept black people in separate communities from the white, and treated them as inherently inferior. Children were taught from Sunday School onwards that those beliefs came from the Bible, and that to question them was to challenge the word of God. For the black people there were three options. They could remain oppressed, they could reject Christianity, or they could interpret the Bible in a different way. Desmond Tutu, the first black archbishop of Cape Town was an inspirational Christian leader who fought apartheid on its own ground. He listed the reasons he found in the Bible to believe that all people are created equal, and that in God’s eyes no race is inferior. He worked for change through peaceful means, and remained committed to non-violence. He used the Old Testament, the gospels and Paul’s letters to support his position. He was told to stick to religion because a church leader should not get involved in politics.   He is said to have replied

“When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.”

Tutu is a man of prayer who starts every day of his busy life with silent meditation. His strength, his faith and his interpretation of the Bible are the fruits of his relationship with Jesus. For us, too, the process is cyclic. Jesus leaps from the pages of the Bible to become to us a living person. To understand him better we go back to the Bible to read about his context. We study with our minds, but our ultimate guide is the character of the Christ we meet in our prayers and worship.

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