The Bible

Sermon for Bible Sunday given in St James Colwall

Isaiah 55: 1-11; 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5; John 5: 36b-47

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

Do you often give up on a book? I was reading a rather whimsical article the other day about how an author/comedian called Mark Bellingham had told the Cheltenham literary festival about his 20 page rule. What is his 20 page rule? Well it says that if a book hasn’t gripped you within twenty pages then it’s OK not just to give up on it, but also to throw it across the room angrily. Somewhat alarmingly, Mr Bellingham added that he does this with about five out of every ten books he starts on. I’ll leave it to you whether you want to apply the 20 page rule to your own reading regime.

Probably not. And one book we don’t want to give up on today or any day is the bible. Today is Bible Sunday when we celebrate this book which is so important to our faith and which has had such an effect on so many people’s lives. And it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on its place in our lives and the value we place upon it.

Because it’s a fact isn’t it, that even among Christians, attitudes to the bible cover a broad spectrum. At the extreme you get intense folk who pore over obscure parts of the books like Daniel and the Revelation of St John for insights into the end time and other apocalyptic events. And then you get folk who verse-pick to feed their prejudices or to justify their intolerance. And then I dare say there are some whose sole exposure to the bible is listening to what the lectionary people choose to be read out on a Sunday morning.

Which is no bad thing in itself of course, but the readings we hear in church are but snippets of the greater whole which surely merits further study and appreciation of its place in our faith. For its place in our faith is significant. It’s no easy matter to define what our C of E faith really consists of but I think one can make a reasonable first stab at it by pointing to three essential characteristics:

Scripture, worship and sacrament.

We could elaborate on this and discuss it all day but let’s stick with the bible and let’s let the three readings we had this morning speak to us a little more, because between them they do form a fascinating commentary on what we mean by the word of God.

Firstly, that passage from Isaiah 55. It’s a wonderful basis for reflection with almost every line memorably poetic

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!

Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call on him while he is near.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

It’s all encouragement for us with its promise of the value of the word of God and its ability to feed us. I read somewhere someone saying that they felt that when they read the bible, it wasn’t so much them reading the bible as the bible reading them. I’m not entirely sure I know what that means but it sounds good, and it seems to hint at a good way of approaching the bible - a way without preconceptions, without cynicism and with a willingness to be spoken to, to be changed by the word of the living God.

And so to 2 Timothy, and that verse beloved of bible believing fundamentalists everywhere: all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof and so on. OK, it’s self referential and having read through the Old Testament during Lent this year, I have to admit to finding some of the genealogies somewhat less than inspiring, and some of the histories a bit repetitive but I wanted this reading in as a bit of a plea for the epistles. Because the epistles do seek to interpret the life of Christ in the light of the Old Testament and to develop a theology and an approach to living which does justice to Jesus and his sacrifice. Read out in church they can seem a bit dense and impenetrable and there are certainly sections which seem to apply to a very different age so perhaps it is the case that they are more suitable for quiet reflective reading which gives each phrase the time and attention it needs. One way or another, they do deserve our attention.

And so to John 5 where Jesus could not have been clearer in what he was saying to the religious leaders of his day.
You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

The point of the bible is to lead us to faith in Christ and to strengthen our faith in him. The bible can at times be difficult, it can be contradictory, it can be challenging and frustrating and it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge these things. None of that lessens its ability to feed our faith and to bring us nearer to God through Jesus.

Confession time. I have books on my Kindle which I have started but not finished. Moby Dick springs to mind, but I’ll get there one day. There are also books in the bible which I’ve not delved into in ages. So I need to buck my ideas up. But where to begin if we’re not habitually reading scripture already? At the zoom service last Sunday, Melanie encouraged us to read the gospel of Luke. Actually, I think I shall adopt that suggestion this week and I’m confident I shall get beyond page twenty.