Last Sunday of Trinity / Bible Sunday
26 October 2014
St Mary’s Hadlow
READINGS – Nehemiah 8, 1-4a & 8-12, Matthew 24:30-35
MAY I SPEAK +IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT
When I was at primary school, which I am amazed to say I left 35 years ago, I went to a Church of England school. As a good Church of England school we had a daily assembly with hymns and RE lessons, as you might expect.
However I also had a form teacher who had an interesting way of introducing us to the bible, and one that may not have been approved of by the governors. If anyone was ever naughty (which of course was hardly ever) he would make us sit and read, how shall I put it, the less exciting parts of the bible such as the lengthy genealogies containing what seemed like pages of unpronounceable names. So for us, being made to read the bible was a punishment. Now, you don’t have to be a psychologist to unpack the signals that was sending a class of children! Let’s just say that the fact I ever went back to it and am speaking here now is truly evidence that God is still working miracles!
However, the reason my teacher chose to use the bible as a punishment in that way was doubtless because he perceived it to be an uninspiring read and, I suspect, that he was not alone in that view either then or now. However, today’s reading from Nehemiah illustrates a rather different view of scripture and one that should challenge us as Christians, especially on this Bible Sunday.
A few weeks ago we thought about Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments carved into stone, then giving his people the rest of the Law prior to the Israelites entering the Promised Land. Now, unless one has thought much about Old Testament history it is easy to assume that the Jewish nation simply continued in Israel from the time of Moses until the time of Jesus. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
About 500 years before the birth of Christ, Israel was a weak and divided nation and Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, invaded Jerusalem, broke down its walls, destroyed the first Temple and took the majority of the population away into captivity. Anyone remember Boney M – “By the Rivers of Babylon”? Only the poorest were left to inhabit the ruins of a once great city. This situation continued for about 100 years until another King, Cyrus of Assyria, began to allow the captives to return to their homeland. So, for all that time, the people who had been in captivity had been kept away from the holy places of Jerusalem and the people in Jerusalem had been defenceless and without a Temple. Whilst both of these groups would have been aware of being culturally Jewish it is likely that they had little idea of the religious contents of what it meant to be Jewish as any form of worship or the reading of Scripture would have been extremely rare.
The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem by the returning exiles and today’s reading from Chapter 8 is the moving account of people’s reaction when they hear the scriptures read aloud. Let’s have a quick look at it. Looking at v.3, first they listened attentively as the law of Moses was read and explained to them and in response to hearing the Word of God first they bowed down and worshiped with their faces on the ground (v. 6) and then they wept, (v.9) – in fact they wept so much that the priests had to tell them to stop!
Imagine the scene – hundreds it not thousands of people who have been starved of scripture for many years bowing down and crying as they hear the foundation of their faith proclaimed afresh to them for possibly the first time in generations. Why were they crying – you may think that if you were made to stand outside for hours while the OT was read to you that you might cry too – however I think they had a different reason: On hearing the Word of God in the form of Scripture they were rediscovering their place in relation to God and in relation to each other and they were grieving for what they had been missing out on for so long.
It was like a starving man suddenly being offered a feast or someone long separated from their family suddenly seeing their loved ones come into view. They had lost the word of God, they had lost an important part of their identity, and now suddenly it was here, being read and explained to them and first they wept with joy and then celebrated a sacred day.
Today, as I said is Bible Sunday, which is promoted by the Bible Society. The family and I are off to Wales in a couple of hours time and you may be interested to know that the Bible Society started in Wales with the story of a young girl who was desperate to own her own Bible. Her name was Mary Jones and she lived near Cadaer Idris and at the age of 9 she decided that she must have her own Bible. However this was the 1790s and Bibles were large volumes and very expensive. And so she started working and saving and for 6 years she scraped together enough money. But she lived in a tiny hamlet and the nearest shop with bibles in was 26 miles away in Bala. And so, in the year 1800 at the age of 15 she wrapped some bread and cheese into a cloth and walked across the hills and valleys for 26 miles to Bala. But when she got there all the Welsh bibles had either been sold or reserved. She was so distraught that the bookshop owner took pity on her and let her buy one of the reserved copies. And when she held it for the first time she said “Thank you Jesus.” The bookshop owner was called Thomas Charles and he was so touched by Mary’s story that in 1804 he started the Bible Society to try and make Bibles available to as many people as possible.
But did you know that in large parts of our world in quite recent history it has been illegal to own a bible? In Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Burma, North Korea today and doubtless others it has been a serious offence to own or distribute bibles. And yet in each of those countries there has always flourished an underground route of those who are prepared to smuggle them in at huge personal risk in order for the written word of God to get to those who want it. You may remember me speaking of people in Baghdad being killed for daring to be baptised well plenty of our brothers and sisters in Christ have also died for the crime of possessing a bible.
Are any of you now looking slightly guiltily at the pew bibles in front of you, wondering when the last time it was opened?
When thinking about the Bible, do you think about it as my old primary school teacher obviously did, as a dull book to be inflicted on children, or do you think of it as the people in Jerusalem did, as a cause of worship and tears of repentance? If it is the former then could I suggest, with humility as a fellow sinner, that one way of getting to know God better is to cast off some of our modern cynicism and to re-engage with the Word of God by reading the bible regularly and prayerfully? At last week’s family service Kelly introduced a sticker scheme to reward the children for reading their bibles. When was the last time you read or engaged with the bible in any meaningful sense outside of a service? Do we need a sticker scheme for grown ups to encourage us to re-engage with the written word of God – to rescue us from being cultural Christians in exile and to bring us back to the heart of our faith.
But I have to say that reading the bible is not always without its challenges – there are bits that are difficult or a bit boring or hard to understand. I know, I have read the whole thing, it is one of the requirements of being ordained. There is a multiple choice test and everything.
But we are not living an underground faith – there are thousands of resources out there to help us read our bibles regularly and to help us understand them. We can read them in groups and discuss the meaning, we can use bible notes, there are many online resources to guide us and help us. The only thing we need to provide is the decision. Did you know that it is possible to read the whole bible in a year taking about 20 minutes a day? You can even get special bibles in one year that give us a chunk of old testament, new testament, proverbs or psalm every day so all the hard work is done for you. You only need to decide to do it and you can do it.
Of course this does not mean that you can only be a good Christian if you read your bible regularly. Far from it. I know some people who can quote chapter and verse and yet seem to miss the heart of the faith and I have known others who are barely literate but who really live it. As I said last week a faith that consists only of words is powerless and we are privileged to be able to encounter God not only between the covers of a book but also in our hearts by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and in the sharing of our sacraments. But that is not to downplay the importance of the gift that God gives us in his written word – I would love everyone here to re-approach the bible like the Israelites hearing it again for the first time in generations and be prepared to receive that word with tears of joy and repentance and with a heart quickened by a deepening of your relationship with God.
Finally, now that I know the bible better than I did at primary school, I wish I could travel back in time and show all my 10 year old friends the epic battle scenes that would put Lord of the Rings to shame. The Bible is one of God’s gifts to us – rediscover it, enter into it, and learn to feed daily on every word that comes from the mouth of God.