For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
I take preaching very seriously. In fact I would have to say that I think it’s one of the most important things I can do for you as your parish priest. But in order for my preaching to have any value whatsoever it utterly depends on me reading the text in the Bible and spending time getting to know it and understand it, and almost every sermon I have ever preached begins with the text that has been set for the day.
Even today as we celebrate the King James Bible and its 400th anniversary I am drawn to the words from Romans 15 which says that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of these scriptures we might have hope. And alongside that I have the command from the Lord himself to teach.
Yet I think that for the most part we have come to take the Bible for granted and we have lost sight of what an incredible gift it is. We have only had an authorised version in English for four hundred years. That’s not actually very long. Lady Burman is 97. So in the year she was born we’d only just had the three hundredth anniversary. We’ve only had the Bible in our own language for four long lifetimes.
You’ve already heard how many people gave up their lives for it. They could see how vitally important it was for the spiritual health of the English speaking world that everyone would be able to read it, and yet within four lifetimes we have lost sight of just how incredibly special this book is.
When was the last time you sat down and really studied or meditated on a passage? If people were willing to lay down their lives for you to be able to have that text in your hand, don’t you think it must warrant your time?
So let’s have a think. What actually is the Bible? As I was writing this I was also engaged in an on-line debate with a friend from the Nick Drake gathering who was talking about how confusing the Bible is, and I think he put his finger on it for us. One of the reasons people don’t read the Bible is because they find it difficult. But is that really a good excuse? There are plenty of things in life that are difficult yet worthwhile.
One of the reasons clergy and the established powers in the church fought against having the Bible in everyday language was because they thought that the ordinary person shouldn’t have access to it because it was too difficult for them to understand. Yet people like Tyndale stood out against them. It is the height of arrogance to say that only intelligent people should have access to it. But it does require of us that we take care when we read it.
The first thing we have to do with the Bible is recognise that it is not a book. Seriously. I know it looks like a book but it isn’t. It is in fact a library, and it’s important to know what genre each book in this library belongs to. That takes a little study, but it’s really not hard. It is however vital.
Imagine going into a library to look for a historical record and going into the science fiction section. It’s possible you might find something that is quite prophetic, but you’re not going to find anything that tells you what really happened. The same thing applies to the Bible. Some books are meant to be histories. Some are meant to be poems. Some are meant to take a story from history and develop it into a morality tale.
It’s important to know what genre the piece you’re reading comes from. But having said that you also need to be aware that the beauty of the Bible is the way it’s written by its many different authors with styles that allow deeper and deeper meanings to be found there under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For example the Song of Solomon is clearly meant to be an out and out erotic love poem with talk of breasts like gazelles and, well you get the idea...
Yet at the same time, on a deeper level it also says something about the desire and tenderness that Christ has for the church. Or look at some of the Old Testament prophecies and see how they keep coming true in a repeated fashion. The classic example is the Isaiah prophecy of the young woman who will give birth to a saviour called Emmanuel, God is with us. It was written for a people in turmoil needing a political saviour, yet came into an even deeper truth when the Gospel writers applied it to Jesus.
And on an even deeper level some of the writers used their chosen language in such a way as to conceal layer upon layer of truth. Consider this from John’s Gospel. You’ve already had some Greek from Margaret; let me give you a little more from John 1:9. In Greek it says
En to phōs to alēthinon, ho phōtidzei panta anthrōpon, erchomenon eis ton kosmon.
We usually translate that as ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ But John was very clever, because he wrote the Greek in such a way that it also means this, ‘He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world.’ He also does it with the classic line from John 16 where Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘You must be born again.’ But the language he uses also means, ‘You must be born from above.’
I could go on giving you examples, but suffice it to say that our Greek teacher found something new in the text every single year he taught the course. Now if he could find that, after all of his years of scholarship, how much more are we going to find it as beginners? The depths that are there for us to fathom are truly amazing.
Yes it can be difficult to read, and that’s one of the reasons I promised myself years ago that I would not shy away from the difficult subjects in the Bible but try and make them clear to any congregation God called me to. I do that to inspire you that as a book the Bible is interesting and worthy of your study. It is so good that it has the potential to utterly change your life.
So let me finish by saying that there are three equally valid ways of reading scripture, and two of them are easy. The first is to read it for its surface meaning. What is the text literally saying? That’s called text centred reading. With some passages it can be difficult when the text seems confusing, but those confusing passages are no excuse for not reading the vast majority of the texts that are straightforward, particularly in the New Testament.
The second valid way of reading it is to try and understand what the author was trying to convey. This is the hard one, referred to as author centred reading, because it requires more in depth study. This is what I try and do for you in sermons, but you can do it too. It just requires reading what other people say about what they think the author was trying to convey.
The third way is perhaps the most important way, and it is centred on reading the Bible prayerfully. This is called reader centred reading because what you are looking for is what the text is saying to you personally.
This is the way in which the Holy Spirit can use a piece of scripture to speak directly to you. My favourite verse in the Bible is from John chapter 10 where Jesus says, ‘I came that they would have life, and have it in all its fullness.’ To me as the reader what that says is that, as a priest I must always ask myself if what I am doing is bringing life, because that is in keeping with the Gospel of Christ. It’s not necessarily what Jesus intended from the context of the story, but it is how the Holy Spirit has challenged me in my ministry.
The Bible is the most life changing, challenging and wonderful book in creation. People died so that you could have access to it in our own language. People continue to translate it to keep modern translations in step with modern culture. It is worthy of study. It is worthy of prayer. And it is the primary way in which God will speak to you. Please read it, and read it, and read it some more. Because if you do, your life will be changed. Amen.