Sermon preached at St John’s Adel for Bible Sunday 2019.
This may sound odd – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a church with so many bibles. Of course for the early Rectors of Adel – that wouldn’t have been true at all. Before the printing press books were incredibly expensive, and rare. And the bible, then only available in Latin, was thought to be something only priests should read.
Only priests had the bible, they chose which bits the people should hear – and how it was presented. I can’t imagine you accepting that – and things weren’t so different in the 16th Century.
One key player was William Tyndale who believed everyone should read the bible for themselves – in their own language. Despite it being illegal – he began to translate the bible into English. He was hounded, eventually arrested, and put to death; but not before copies of his translation had been smuggled into Britain – and read widely.
The tide was turning, and four years after Tyndale’s death, the King ordered an English bible be present in every parish church. Not locked away in the hands of the priest – but open on the lectern. Actually…chained to the lectern…but only to stop theft. The bible was finally available to anyone lucky enough to be able to read.
Why did Tyndale give his life for a bible in English? Why did others risk theirs by owning such a thing? I guess because they’d discovered that when they heard the Bible in their own language, they found their own lives within it.
Scripture, when we read it for ourselves, turns out to be far more than instructions on what to believe or how to live. It’s something we encounter.
We’ve often struggled, as Christians, to know how to deal with the Bible. Some try to take it as literally true – almost like an encyclopedia of God. I suspect it’s done out of a desire to protect the Bible – perhaps even to protect God – but I think it diminishes both.
I’m not knocking encyclopedia…as a child I spent hours reading them…but if I want to learn about myself, if I want to grow and mature, an encyclopedia isn’t much use. A good novel or a poem is much more challenging and revealing. An encyclopedia gives me facts about things…novels and poems explore human life. And the Bible is full of stories and poems.
Rowan Williams says scripture isn’t words dropped from heaven, a simple and transparent picture of God. It’s the record of an encounter between humanity and God. The Bible, he says, contains God’s desire to communicate with us…and our inability to hear and understand properly…it contains our resistance to the message…and beautiful moments where God is glimpsed and people understand.
Bible Sunday began in 1915 out of a desire to make the Bible available in as many languages as possible. Perhaps people saw what Tyndale did – that when we have the bible in our own language we find it speaks the language of our lives.
And if we spend time with the Bible, we find that even in 21st century Britain, it has something to say in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Sometimes – in desolate times – we just need to know that God’s people have felt like this before. Many of the psalms are songs of lament. They might give us the words we need to tell God how we feel. They give us language to rant and rage at God…yet still, tentatively, to hold on to our trust in him.
There was a particularly low time in my life when almost the only Bible passage I could cope with was Jesus on the cross crying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I wasn’t ready for comfort, or even hope – but knowing that Jesus himself had been where I was, kept my faith alive.
At other times though, we are ready to read on. To spend time with a story, a psalm or a parable and let it rub up against our lives. If we see the Bible as an encounter, a wrestling almost, between God and God’s people…then we can consider what it might mean in the context of our lives. We can make the story our own. Maybe we can consider what our lives mean in the context of the Bible.
For me, that’s what makes the Bible so compelling…even if bits are totally baffling. All of human life is there – so we are there. It meets us where we are…because whatever we’re going through, whatever our situation, God’s people have been there before.
Even more importantly, it’s the story of how God interacts with people in all those situations – what God seems to be speaking into those situations. An encounter with God never leaves people the same – their lives, or their perspective on life, are always changed in some way.
So the Bible might meet us where we are – but if we engage with it seriously – if we make those stories our own – it doesn’t leave us where we are. The stories of Jesus especially, challenge the values we’re offered by the world. They give me a different narrative that, when I spend time with it, makes so much more sense.
If the Bible is to change us though, we need to give it time. The page numbers of the weekly readings are on the pew sheet, bibles are in the pews – if you’re ever here early you might like to read one of them before the service starts.
I’d also suggest to taking the sheet away and reading them again during the week. Take the words and stories out of church and into your lives…see what they say. You may find a conversation takes place between a bible passage and your life…which leaves your understanding of both enlarged.