Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – Bible Sunday – 23rd October 2016
Romans 15 vv 1 – 6 – All past Scriptures were written for our learning
Luke 4 vv 16 – 24 – Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth
- Introduction. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, said Jesus, following the shortest Bible reading, of only 1½ verses, I have ever known, in an introduction to one of the shortest sermons I have known. The prophecy of Isaiah was indeed being fulfilled, not at that moment so much, but within their hearing. Jesus had recently returned from his 40 days in the wilderness in the power of the Spirit to begin his public ministry, in Galilee. He was indeed preaching good news to the poor, people were being healed both physically and spiritually, for example, blind people literally having their sight restored, but also people, who were spiritually blind, coming into a new experience of forgiveness and relationship with God, being born again of the Spirit. What though of freedom for the prisoners? Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that John, i.e. John the Baptist, had been put in prison, he, Jesus, returned to Galilee. John’s ministry was over, Jesus’ ministry was beginning. But languishing in prison, John began to doubt. Where was this freedom for the prisoners?
It is still true though that, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. People are responding all over the world to the preaching of the gospel, good news, especially for the poor. Note how Spirit and Word go together. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. The Spirit guided Jesus to choose that particular reading. Sometimes clergy and lay people have dreams about not being able to find the book or the right place in the book. It must have taken Jesus some time to roll the scroll of Isaiah forward to near the end of the next-to-longest book in the Hebrew Bible. The Spirit long ago inspired Isaiah as he wrote his prophetic book looking forward to the return of the Jews from Exile, but beyond that to the coming of the Messiah and even to beyond our time, with the creation of the new heaven and the new earth. It should not surprise us that every bit is not fulfilled on every occasion and that John the Baptist was not only left languishing in prison but lost his life because of his uncompromising stance, just as Jesus would three years later, just as some Christians down the ages to our own day have languished in prison and died rather than their compromise their faith in Jesus.
- The Old Testament. In our Epistle reading the Apostle Paul writes, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.” One has to say that some books and parts of the Old Testament teach us more than other. The historical books of Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles have so much about war, fighting, going into captivity and the like. However, the writer of a study book on the book of Judges has this to say, “As we work thorough the warfare and look beyond the bad behaviour, we will discover a book that is all about faith. In the first 8 chapters of the book we are taught, ‘The importance of faith’, ‘What can be achieved when , in faith we work together with God’, ‘How faith is demonstrated through the way we live’ and ‘God’s commitment to growing and shaping our faith’”. In Morning Prayer in recent months we have followed much of the accounts in the books of Kings. In these books we see the recurring theme that as the nation, either Judah or Israel, goes away from the one true God by worshipping other gods and images, perhaps trying to worship the one true God and other gods, the nation goes downhill, loses its battles and ends up by being deported to Assyria or Babylon. A warning to us individually to hold firm to our faith and as a nation to seek to retain our Christian heritage in a way that is appropriate to our multifaith society. Also remember that the Old Testament is a record of God’s dealings with his people over many millennia. It records events without hiding or glossing over the more unpleasant events, for example King David’s adultery and the murder of the woman’s husband. But it of course includes the role of the prophet in challenging his awful wrongdoing. If you look at our history in Britain over the last two millennia it is full of wars, including, sadly, civil war, and the waywardness of kings, queens, political masters and military leaders. Jesus far more often quoted from the prophets, as we see in today’s Gospel, the law and the wisdom literature. Maybe we do well likewise to give priority to these books, to use the psalms, some written in times of despair but still looking to the Lord, others full of praise. In our Study Group we are coming towards the end of studying the Ten Commandments. I have been keen that we should understand them both in the context of the times they were given and later times. To see them as a guide to the covenant relationship between God and his people, to see how Jesus interpreted the commandments and to consider how we, also under the New Covenant, should relate to them in society and individually today.
- Bible and science. In a letter to the Church Times a few weeks ago I wrote that my hope and prayer is that the 21st century will be one of rapprochement between science and religion. I was pleased therefore to read a few days ago a report in the Daily Telegraph that a statistical analysis shows that people are unlikely to live beyond 125 years. How closely this accords with Genesis 6 v 3, shortly before the flood, in which we read, “The Lord said, ‘my spirit will not contend with man for ever, for he is mortal; his days will be 120 years.’” This limitation did not take effect immediately, for Noah, his children and grandchildren generally lived to a great age even Abraham lived to 175 years (Gen 25 v 7), his wife Sarah to 127 years (Gen 23 v 1) and his son Isaac to 180 years (Gen 35 v 28) but by the time we come to the end of Genesis we find that Joseph died at the age of 110 years (Gen 50 vv, 22, 26). There are many other instances of accord, some of which I have quoted on other occasions. Let us though move on to how we might use the Bible in a more personal way, amplifying Paul’s thrust in his sermon last Sunday on the importance of both prayer and the Bible.
- Using the Bible today. If all we hear or read of Scripture is two readings on a Sunday morning then our knowledge and understanding of the Bible will be severely limited. There is a variety of schemes for assisting regular Bible reading, in the form of notes, some samples of which we have here today. You can ask the Christian bookshop in Tonbridge for advice or my wife Julia, who may be able help you. The Church of England has a lectionary, that is, a set of readings, not only for Sundays but, on a 2-year cycle, for weekdays for both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. This is all probably far more than you would feel able to cope with, but one can use it as a systematic basis for perhaps one reading a day. I can explain more of that to anyone particularly interested.
Another approach is to take a single verse as a motto, a basis for meditation and a daily guide. Let me give you some examples:
John 14 v 6, Jesus said ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Firstly, read the verse in its context, the first part of John 14. Then day by day meditate on it. Ask the Holy Spirit to deepen your insight into the verse. Ask yourself, ‘To what extent is Jesus my way? Am I seeking to follow him each day?’ Thank him that he is such a wonderful Way through the whole of life, to the glory of the life hereafter, fully in his presence. Allow the verse to embed itself deeply and firmly in your memory. I remember at the age of 18 going to hear Billy Graham preach at Haringey. That verse hung in large letters in the centre of the stadium. I remember thinking, ‘Am I going to make Jesus my way?’. That, together with Billy Graham’s preaching caused me to get up out my seat and commit my life to Christ. Perhaps you have never made a firm step of commitment and today is the day for you.
Or how about the Apostle Paul’s confident statement, “For me to live is Christ” (Phil 1 v 21). Say that each day for a month, really allowing God the Holy Spirit bring home the fullness of its personal impact and see what a profound effect that has on your life!
Some verses can be helpful in particular times of stress, anxiety and so on. For example the Apostle Paul’s words to the young pastor, Timothy, “God has not given us a spirit of timidity but of power and of love and of self discipline,” or the testimony of King David in Psalm 34, “I sought the Lord; and he delivered me from all my fears”. I know that these verses have been of particular help to one member of our Church.
Some Bibles and New Testaments list a selection of verses and readings to strengthen one and encourage one in the variety of life’s ups and downs.
In our Study Group we will soon (on Wednesday November 9th to be precise) be starting a new series of studies, in the parables of Jesus. Consider joining us to think through an important part of Jesus’ teaching.
I invite you all on this, Bible Sunday, to read, mark learn and inwardly digest the marvellous, inspired writings of Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testament.
May today the Scriptures be fulfilled not only in our hearing but in ourselves.
1730 words Christopher Miles