Bible Sunday

Sermon for St. Andrew’s Ealing, 27 October 2013

The way we make our progress through the bible is in the given readings of the week – the lectionary… it’s an accepted account of the principal readings of the bible, accepted that is by most of the world’s churches. So on most Sundays, most churches in the world are hearings the same readings at the same time. It runs over a 3 year cycle, which is enough time and space to give us the key readings – but by no means all, and it’s possible to come across criticisms of the lectionary (which really just means reading list) because, for example, it misses opportunities to present the voices of women writers, such as Ruth.

What I’m going to do first is to give you two short readings that get missed out! They make very different points. The first completes the reading from the 2nd letter to Timothy, which we’ve just had the rest of.  We’ve heard from Paul that he was…

already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 

Words – and images – that have inspired generations of Christians. The next passage is left out from public readings.Left out because it gives simply too much detail of names and places, but it’s worth hearing – for once – because of what it tells us of Paul’s state of mind and of what really mattered to him, as he faced his final trial and execution.

2 Tim 4 (the missing verses from the lectionary)

Here in this second letter to Timothy, Paul is at the end of his life. Execution is perhaps imminent. These are his last instructions and he makes very detailed comments on friends as well as enemies. And he asks for three things: his cloak, because it is coming winter; and his books and his parchments. We’ll never know which books – inherited religious writings, his own writings, prayers or letters, collections of the sayings of Jesus perhaps, the kind of writings that were later shaped to become the gospels.

A coat and a library! This is an intensely literary world and the world of the early Christians was one – based on the life of a man who never wrote down his teachings – is utterly bound up in the written word. The Reformers were not wrong to give central importance to the written word, though I wish they hadn’t smashed up so many images [as we can see at the Art under Attack exhibition at the Tate] on the way.

And we have to be supple, thoughtful and prayerful in our reading of the Bible. If we expect the meaning to be always obvious and immediate and ‘a given’, then think again. Not every part of the bible is of equal value. The lectionary – the reading list for the whole church makes that clear. Some parts never get read out on a Sunday, though the lectionary is a serious effort to give us exposure to the principal readings of the whole bible.

Let me give you a rather strange example of the words we never get to hear. Now this very obscure reading is a favourite of Theology students and you’ll quickly see why:

2 Kings 2 23-24
He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, ‘Go away, baldie! Go away, baldie!’ When he turned round and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

The limits of interpretation: From the commentaries: baldness may have marked him out as a Prophet, as his ability to curse the boys; 42 an evil number (also in Revelation); even, there’s a comment! “Perhaps these are teenagers, and not children”. But I think we have to recognise that something has got lost along the way. Whatever the original point of the story, it’s pretty hard to relate it to any kind of recognisable ethical context that means anything much today.

So – we have to keep our wits about us, as we read God’s story in the Bible.

But while there are parts of the bible which we must let go of, there are others which come driving towards us with certainty and conviction and which are expectation-shattering and life-giving and which make the world anew. Our reading from Luke is one such. We usually hear it read at Epiphany, in late January, but it was specially chosen for Bible Sunday because of what it has to say about the word of the Bible becoming flesh.

The first two verses follow the account of the temptation of Jesus and take us into his ministry in Galilee. The driving force is the Holy Spirit. The primary locations of Jesus’ ministry and his own religious practice are the synagogues. His work is clearly within Judaism rather than alongside or against it, and he was well received.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

The synagogue was a centre for learning, community life and the administration of justice as well as worship. Worship at the altar was in the one Temple. In the many synagogues, people gathered around the word. From his upbringing, Jesus would have felt at home in any of the synagogues he visited. Synagogue services consisted of reading the scriptures and commenting, prayers and the offering of gifts for the poor. The leadership was lay and any adult male could read and comment. Whilst his message may have been extraordinarily powerful, there was nothing extraordinary about him speaking in the synagogues in Galilee.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

Reading those verses (Isaiah 61.1-2), a servant song, was, for Jesus and his listeners, an act of revolution. These are the key points of the passage:

·     the Spirit – remembering Jesus’ baptism and the empowering of his ministry (v. 14);

·     anointing – the Messiah would be God’s anointed one;

·     the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed – those who were marginalised or excluded who needed the good news of liberation but who were ill served by society and organised religion;

·     the year of the Lord’s favour – the year of Jubilee when there is amnesty, liberation and restoration.

This is not a future hope but is actually beginning to be realised in the person of Jesus. Apart from the scripture reading, Luke presents the first public word of Jesus’ ministry as ‘today’. Jesus’ ministry and the future ministry of the Church is about the here and now.

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 

Jesus does not simply proclaim the righting of wrong, of liberation and salvation – it is realised in him. In today’s passages from Luke we read of age-long hopes coming to reality today. Whatever our hopes for the future, life in Christ is about now.

And these are vital words for us today because we are – as the Moderator Revd Dr Andrew Prasad told us last week – living in the in-between times, at the start of something new, and we are living in the here and now. We give thanks for the Bible, for these readings from His Holy Word, for that.

Peter Knowles

Bible quotations from NRSV. Commentary on Luke adapted from Roots. Copyright reserved.