Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Bible says....

1st Sunday of Lent

Romans 10:13
For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Luke 4:1-13
The Temptation of Jesus
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The bad Bible...
I wanted to call this, 'The bad Bible', which is, of course, intended to be a provocative title. Perhaps it would be better to use the phrase, 'Bad use of the Bible'. Today marks the first Sunday of Lent which is the season in which it is intended that we look very closely at ourselves and our nature, and what I want to do is to question the benchmark that we use to do this. What I mean by that is, how do we know that something is right or wrong in our behaviour? I mean, sometimes it's easy. If I walk up to someone in the street who I've never seen before and put them in an armlock before wrestling them down to the ground, that's very clearly wrong because it's a use of unprovoked violence. But what if I'd done that because I'd just seen that person lift someone's purse out of a handbag? I take the same action, but now that we can see the motive for my action, that changes whether it's right or wrong. I've done the same thing but now it is an act of protection for someone.

Or how about this? This was a story I was told in a session on situation ethics many years ago when, as a teenager and very enthusiastic new believer, I went to a week-long Christian conference. The speaker spoke of a very shy woman, very quiet and who always had her head in a book. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, except that for her it was a way of keeping safe from the world, of not engaging with it. And then one day, quite out of character, she met a man to whom, unexpectedly, she was very attracted. And again, quite out of character, she had a one-night stand with this man. The result of this single sexual encounter for the shy woman who never left home was that her world suddenly opened up with a self-confidence she had never before known and an experience that left her wanting more out of life.

And so she began to live.

She began to make something more of her life. She began to become someone who socialised and engaged with the world. Now I remember being very shocked, as a new Christian, to hear this story at what was a charismatic and evangelical conference. Surely sex outside marriage was wrong, I thought. And especially a one night stand of uncommitted passion. Yet here was a leader who called that into question, and it began to get me questioning, and to ask a question that I continue to ask throughout my adult life, which is this, what is the benchmark for right behaviour? That is a question to which the answer you will normally be given is, 'Well what does the Bible say?' And that, I think, is when we begin to get into problems.

At the beginning of Lent, what does the Bible say?

I mean we live in an age when Christians are fighting against Christians about all sorts of issues, but especially about the role of women in leadership and human sexuality. Over and over again I hear people say something along the lines of, 'The Bible says that marriage is between one man and one woman.' Well, yes it does... Eventually.

But it also gives the following examples of marriage:

There were plenty of polygamous marriages where a man has more than one wife. Granted that the tendency with time was towards one man and one woman, but King Solomon was not condemned for having too many wives; he was condemned because he married women of other religions and followed their gods. The sin, according to what was written about him, was not the many wives, but that he became unfaithful to God.

Then there was Levirate marriage where a widow with no sons was married off to her dead husband's brother. Children of that union were legally counted as the children of her first husband. And of course, she had no say in this. If her brother in law was a brute, that was tough because her duty was to have children for her dead husband so that there was someone for his property to pass on to.

Then in addition to polygamy, a man could also have several concubines. These were a kind of secondary wife meaning that any children conceived had no inheritance rights. Following on from that come the more shocking examples, yet these are not condemned but were culturally acceptable practices. So female prisoners of war could be forced to become wives or concubines, and unmarried victims of rape were forced to marry their rapists. All of these came about because women were treated as property in the Bible. This is something about which we violently disagree now, based on ethical principles which we derive from our faith, yet those ethical principles are fairly new.

The point I am trying to make is that, when we are trying to decide upon what is sinful behaviour, it is not as simple as looking in the Bible for a verse to guide us. One has to execute judgement in the matter, and have a good idea of the breadth of opinions expressed, and the culture within which they were written. And this is brought home for us in the story from Luke's Gospel about the temptation of Christ.

Jesus is tempted by the devil with three different temptations. In the first one the devil appeals to his relationship with God. Just a few verses earlier, at his baptism, Jesus heard God say to him, 'You are my Son.' So here the devil begins with 'If you are God's Son.' So he begins by trying to sow a seed of doubt in the relationship he has with God; did Jesus hear his Father correctly?

The second temptation is an appeal to be powerful and influential; all Jesus has to do is ascribe honour and worship to the devil. But it is the third one which most affects us here in the context of understanding scripture because the devil quotes the Bible at Jesus.

Both his quotes come from Psalm 91, and if you read the psalm as a whole it is all about how God will protect those who love and trust him. It's a wonderful psalm and can be very comforting. But what the devil does with it is to take that one psalm on its own and make a theology out of it in isolation. If you throw yourself off the top of the temple, the angels will catch you because it says in the Bible that they will. How often do we hear that phrase, 'The Bible says...'

Now if you are of a mind to use the Bible as your benchmark for what is good behaviour, and that in itself is not a bad thing, we have to be very mindful that this is the devil quoting scripture at Jesus in order to justify a particular act. But Jesus rightly quotes another bit of scripture back at him to paint the whole picture. And that is the essence of what I want to say here.

If you use the Bible as your benchmark, then you must use the whole Bible, not just a part of it, otherwise it will say exactly what you want it to say. There's another example in the new testament reading from Romans where Paul quotes, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' Hallelujah! Praise God! Everyone, without exception, who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. We know it to be true because the Bible says it's so.

Except... Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, 'Not everyone who says “Lord, lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.' Jesus paints a far more complete picture. It's not just about asking for salvation, it's about responding and living as someone who has been given it. To understand our faith you need to know all the Bible,

So as we begin Lent, and as we start to consider the standards we live by and how good we are at living to those standards, can I encourage you to become far more fully engaged in learning the Bible as a whole, not just the bits you can remember or which seem palatable. Allow yourself to be challenged. If you are local to us, the Pilgrim course for Lent is running through Lent on Wednesday afternoons and Thursday evenings. I invite you to come and learn more, that we may better understand what is asked of us.

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