Interpreting the Bible

Sermon for Bible Sunday in St James Colwall

Nehemiah 8: 1-12; Colossians 3: 12-17

The start of the sermon was not recorded.To listen to the recording of the rest of the sermon as you read:

…. well yes, it’s 40 years and one week to the day. I had completed my training, which was, I suspect, a lot less rigorous than readers are subjected to today and I duly presented myself to be licensed in Gloucester Cathedral - the churchy one I should add, rather than that cathedral of rugby better known as Kingsholm which is the more usual focus of our visits to Gloucester. Pam & I were accompanied by two of our four children, the other two not having been born at the time, and a goodly number of folk from the congregation of St Aidans in Cheltenham, a church whose building sadly no longer exists but whose fellowship, I gather, still meets on a regular basis. We’re still in touch with several of those folk and I’m more than thrilled that three of them are able to be here with us today.

So why didn’t we celebrate last week on the actual anniversary?Well it wouldn’t do to upstage the Bishop, and we were sorry to miss hearing him, but we did have the compensation of being in Sicily, and anyway, what’s a week after forty years?

Enough about me. I do hope you enjoyed that hum-dinger of an Old Testament reading from the book of Nehemiah just now. All those difficult names. And didn’t you just thrill to the idea of listening to a reading of the law that lasted from early morning till midday? A six hour sermon, yes please, bring it on. But then did you find yourself having a certain sympathy with the folk who were weeping by the time Ezra had finished? And did you wonder what was all that stuff about sense and understanding? But most of all, didn’t you just ask yourself what on earth was going on and why are we listening to this?

A little background then. It’s all about a return from exile of a people, the people of Israel, thousands of years ago. Not for the first time, they had been captured and taken into slavery in a foreign land. But over a period of many years their original captors, the Babylonians had been rather losing their grip and so these people, God’s people were able gradually to return to what they considered home territory around Jerusalem, probably in dribs and drabs, as there’s little doubt that a return from exile is always going to be a complex and messy business.

So this event we heard about was designed as an attempt to unify these people around their identity as God’s people by reading to them about their heritage as chosen by God and keepers of his law. There was at least one big snag though. Those readings and the narrative would have been in Hebrew and these people had been living and presumably serving as slaves in a foreign country for well over a hundred years so most of them would speak and understand a different language. Aramaic.

In the light of this, it’s fair to assume that many of the the folk with the unfamiliar names were those who had thought it important to keep the flame alive through all that time and who had worked at keeping their Hebrew language and heritage alive. A bit geeky perhaps, but of great value to Ezra, as it turned out.

Because clearly Ezra and Nehemiah and their pals were nothing if not well organised. They had prepared a wooden platform so that Ezra could be seen. There seems to have been a three line whip on attendance. They had arranged for these bilingual folk to explain the meaning of what was being read. These explainers would have had to study and discuss the text beforehand so they knew what to say. The whole event had been planned as a centrepiece for the foundation of this renewed community. It was built around God’s word.

Today is Bible Sunday. A day, according to the Bible Society, set aside in the church calendar to celebrate the gift of God’s word. No doubt this extraordinary reading from another era was chosen to emphasis the importance of preparation and of interpreting the word so that it makes sense to people. The bible is a remarkable mix of events, teachings, visions and all sorts but it can be difficult to understand. Ezra’s bilingual helpers took time and skill to explain what was being read to those who were struggling with the language and the ideas. It’s always good when someone casts light on something confusing and of course it takes time and effort to be is a position to do that. On a personal note, it has been a privilege and a pleasure over the last forty years to offer my own attempts at explaining the word and I hope I have occasionally cast a little light on things.

But back to Ezra and Nehemiah and their team, they succeeded, these explainers - the narrative mentions tears of understanding which soon turned to joy and feasting. I do sometimes wonder about these mass outpourings of emotion which the Old Testament in particular often refers to but it probably doesn’t do to analyse that thought too much, for the message is clear - that the word of God has the power to bring joy and unity to his people.

A point that was made rather differently by Paul in our epistle reading from Colossians. Epistle readings can be hard going too but this one was chosen for today because of one line in particular: let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Put in plain language, don’t forget to read the bible and the gospels and let them speak to you. There’s this thing, isn’t there that in the dear old C of E we balance scripture, tradition and reason to inform our faith. They’re all important and I guess Bible Sunday reminds us of that balance and asks what is the place of God’s word in our worship and in our lives?

And having said all that, I’m hoping this service won’t end in tears but go straight to celebration and feasting and you’ll say amen to a glass of fizz and to enjoying some of Pam’s specially prepared sausage rolls and cheese straws.