Romans 15:1-6, Luke 4:16-24
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the church celebrates Bible Sunday and, when I mentioned this to my children yesterday, they said: surely every Sunday is Bible Sunday. Not an unreasonable thing to say because we do read from the bible every week and we do try, in some small way, to reflect on what the bible may be saying to us week by week and to weave it into our lives and worship.
But the point, I think, of Bible Sunday is to take a small step back from the weekly readings and to seek to re-engage with the bible as a whole. To remember that it is not just a series of disconnected stories but that it is a grand, sweeping story of God’s relationship with his people and to encourage us, as his people, to explore that big story so that the small stories both make more sense and, more importantly, so that we can grow in our faith and in our journey.
But I want to start with a small personal story of the role the Bible played in my journey of faith, My apologies to those who have heard this before in Lent groups but personal testimony is important.
When I was about nine years old my parents took me for the first and only time to our village church. There was nothing fancy about the church or the service and there was no children’s groups or anything like that. I don’t remember much about the service at all, but I do remember how it made me feel – not bored or cold but, rather, I came away with a deep burning sense of joy and of God’s presence. John Wesley describes his experience in Aldersgate as feeling that his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ and that seems as good a way as any as describing my experience of God’s presence that day.
Sadly, my parents obviously didn’t feel quite the same way, and we didn’t go back to that or any church but I never forgot the feeling of holy joy.
A few years passed and, at the age of 17 I experienced what I can only describe as a very clear call to read the Bible. Having already named-checked John Wesley I may as well mention St Augustine whose call to ‘pick up and read’ was a significant moment of his conversion.
So I felt a distinct call to read the Bible but, unfortunately, my family did not have one in the house. I couldn’t even read one online because, say it quietly, the internet hadn’t been invented then.
I had to go to WH Smith’s to buy a bible but the only one they had was a white covered, very small print, King James version which was obviously meant to be given as a Christening present but never actually read. But I bought it and smuggled it into my room. I’m sure that 17 year old boys smuggle all sorts of things into their rooms but I suspect it is not usually bibles.
Over the next few nights I started to read it. I tell you my eyes couldn’t cope with that print now, but my young eyes could manage and because I had spent the last several years studying both Chaucer and Shakespeare at school the language of the King James did not overly worry me.
Fortunately, I did not try and start reading at Genesis 1. I know too many people who set out with good intentions to read the whole bible, but they make the mistake of trying to read it from front to back like a novel and they get bogged down and disheartened by the time they get to Deuteronomy. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
I knew enough to know that I wanted to read about Jesus and that the stories about Jesus were in the gospels which were towards the back. So I read through Matthew and Mark and Luke and before I got to John I knew that I was a Christian.
I was later called deeper into faith by a desire to receive communion and later still into priesthood by a desire to share communion, which says something about conversion of life being a lifelong process rather than a one-off event, but the reality remains that withdrawing to my room and engaging with the bible is the event that made me a Christian.
The Bible is a powerful tool in God’s armoury. Although not all of you may always agree with my exegesis of particular passages I hope you agree that I seek to engage with the bible wholeheartedly and take it deeply seriously. For me Word and Sacrament are not competitors rather they are both God’s powerful gifts designed to lead us closer to him.
Having said why I take the bible seriously I need also to sound a note of caution. The bible can be and is seriously misused by many people.
The most common way that it is misused is for someone to treat the bible as simply a list of ethical rules. They then take that list of ethical rules and apply them, not to themselves, but to those around them, usually in a condemnatory fashion. Sadly, some Christians and some churches seem to build their whole lives and ministry believing themselves to be superior to others because they believe and follow the rules whereas others do not. That does not mean that ‘anything goes’, which is an equal and opposite mistake, but it does mean that if we are using the bible to point the finger at other people we shall find ten fingers pointing back at us.
So how do we avoid misusing the bible and how do we allow it to transform us for the better rather than simply condemning others?
The answer, Sisters and Brothers, is that we all need to get to know it better, to engage with it more and allow it to seek to enter into us as we seek to enter into it.
Some may say that we don’t keep a Vicar and have to read the bible for ourselves. “That’s your job Vicar, you read the whole thing and tell us what we need to know.”
Actually I would like nothing better than for everyone here to know the whole bible so that if you disagree with something I say from the pulpit we can discuss it and come to a consensus and, hopefully, lift us all slightly higher.
On this Bible Sunday I am therefore going to give the uncontroversial advice that each of us should seek to engage with the Bible more and, ideally, seek to read the whole thing through. But I am also going to give you some tips to help in this task:
- Do not say to yourself or others that you do not have time to read the bible. I know from experience that it is possible to read the whole bible in a year taking about 20 minutes a day. That is the length of The Archers and less than EastEnders. If you cannot find 20 minutes a day to read the bible then you need to reorganise your life and your priorities.
- If you are an existing Christian, or even someone seeking to explore a relationship with God, then I would suggest reading the bible in the context of prayer. It need be nothing elaborate. As you start just ask God to speak to you through his word and a short prayer of thanks at the end.
- Do not try to start at the beginning and read to the end. The Bible is not a novel, it is literally a library, a biblioteque, of different types of book written at different times and for different purposes. Follow a bible reading plan which has Old and New Testament readings each day, perhaps with some psalms and proverbs.
- Although the internet did not exist when I was 17 it does exist now. Annabelle is currently reading the bible using an app on her phone called simply The Bible App which has a whole variety of reading plans.
- Learn to inhabit the bible like a city. Don’t just pop up from the Underground into your favourite parts and then go home again. Explore it properly, learn the highways and the byways, the dead-ends and the secret treasures. Know it so well that when someone tells you that Highgate is near Lewisham you know instinctively that they are wrong.
- Most importantly, do not be afraid of it. There are bits which are difficult to understand, there may be bits which are dull or weird. The same is true of The Archers. Just give those bits to God in prayer or, like Jacob, seek to wrestle with God for meaning. Either way keep going because the more you read the easier it is to put the hard bits into context.
And the context is where I started. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship with his people. We heard in the Gospel reading that the written word of God found it’s fulfilment in the living Word of God, who is Jesus, and because we are followers of Jesus we are woven into this story, which is our story.