St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

The Best Book to read is…

The best book to read is…

Ser­mon preached at St. Luke’s Enmore, Epi­phany 3, 27th Janu­ary 2019

Grow­ing up and attend­ing a Baptist Sunday School, one of the chor­uses we sang often had the words, ‘The best Book to read is the Bible X 2, if you read it every day it will help you on your way, O the best book to read is the Bible.’ I came from a home where the Bible was read often-my Dad star­ted every day read­ing the Bible and pray­ing before he left for work at 6.30am. (A prac­tice he con­tin­ued his whole life.) My sis­ter and broth­er and I were giv­en our own Bibles as soon as we could read and Scrip­ture Uni­on notes which gave us a pas­sage to read each day with a brief com­ment­ary. We were taught to read the Bible and to trust what it said. So we believed the world was cre­ated in sev­en days and that Adam and Eve were real people who encountered a snake that could talk. People who said that the Bible might con­tain myth or allegory were dis­missed as dan­ger­ous lib­er­als and unbe­liev­ers. It wasn’t until I was in seni­or High School years that I met Chris­ti­ans who didn’t read the Bible as lit­er­ally as I had been taught. At Uni­ver­sity I atten­ded the Evan­gel­ic­al Uni­on and star­ted to study the Bible with a slightly more soph­ist­ic­ated approach but was still afraid to ques­tion any­thing the Bible appeared to teach.

I men­tion all this because two of our Lec­tion­ary read­ings this morn­ing fea­ture two detailed scenes of Bible read­ing. I want to sug­gest that these pas­sages give us some clues as to how we should read and under­stand the Scriptures.

The read­ing from Nehemi­ah describes a sig­ni­fic­ant and hard won moment in Israel’s his­tory. Nehemi­ah was part of the Jew­ish dia­spora in Per­sia and was a minor offi­cial in the court of Artax­er­xes, the King of Per­sia. He man­aged to get approv­al from the king to return to Jer­u­s­alem and over­see the res­tor­a­tion of the city of his ancest­ors. The obstacles to the rebuild­ing were numer­ous but Nehemi­ah was determ­ined and per­sist­ent so he finally suc­ceeded in restor­ing the walls and gates of the city. Once the city was made secure the inhab­it­ants were able to live in safety and enjoy a more settled exist­ence. Nehemi­ah then determ­ines that this is an appro­pri­ate time to remind the people of God’s cov­en­ant. He tells the people to gath­er before the Water Gate and calls on the Priest Ezra to read the Law of Moses, the Torah, to the assembly. Ezra opens the scroll in the sight of all the people and reads from early morn­ing until mid­day. Some­thing trans­form­at­ive hap­pens when Ezra opens the book and begins to read. The people con­sent to listen to God’s words, to receive what is said in a spir­it of open­ness and obed­i­ence. We also note that the law is read with inter­pret­a­tion. The people have not heard the law read for a long time, for some this would have been the first time they had heard it. Few of those hear­ers would have been lit­er­ate and even if they were they would not have had any access to a writ­ten text. The ancient words require fresh inter­pret­a­tion, a fresh applic­a­tion for their present exper­i­ence. Many are moved to tears because the law reveals their fail­ure to obey it and high­lights their short com­ings. But Ezra and Nehemi­ah tell the people not to mourn or weep, rather they tell them to rejoice, for they say, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

The Torah was far more than a rule book telling people what they could and couldn’t do. Today’s Psalm 19 describes the law in elo­quent lan­guage: “The law of the Lord is per­fect, reviv­ing the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, mak­ing wise the simple; the pre­cepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…..more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drip­pings of the hon­ey­comb.” The law of the Lord gave Israel its iden­tity, it shaped the people and made them dis­tinct­ive, dif­fer­ent from all the sur­round­ing tribes and nations. And while the law exposed sin it also taught the depths of God’s mercy.

The Gos­pel read­ing for today also describes a pub­lic Bible read­ing. Jesus returns to Galilee after his forty day encounter with the dev­il in the wil­der­ness. Luke tells us that he arrives in Galilee filled with the power of the Holy Spir­it. The Spir­it in Luke leads, fills and empowers for proph­et­ic work. Hav­ing dealt with the devil’s tempta­tions Jesus is now ready to com­mence his real min­istry of teach­ing and preach­ing. In his travels around Galilee Jesus even­tu­ally arrives at his homet­own, Naz­areth. On the Sab­bath, Jesus does what he nor­mally does, he goes to the syn­agogue. He is wel­comed as the loc­al boy who has already made a name for him­self and invited to read the Scrip­tures. He is handed the scroll of the proph­et, Isai­ah and chooses to read from 61. 1–2. Jesus reads a quo­ta­tion that refers to the Spir­it of God, the same Spir­it who brought him to Naz­areth. In the pas­sage Jesus reads, the Spir­it of the Lord is mov­ing the speak­er for the pur­pose of bring­ing good news to the poor, release to the cap­tives, recov­ery of sight to the blind and free­dom for those oppressed. This is the first men­tion of the poor in Luke’s Gos­pel but in Mary’s song we have already been told that the rich and power­ful are sent away empty while the hungry are filled with good things.

This was a power­ful pas­sage to read to a con­greg­a­tion burdened with taxes, imposed by their Roman mas­ters and long­ing for lib­er­a­tion. No won­der that when Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attend­ant and sits down, the eyes of every­one in the syn­agogue were fixed on him. You can ima­gine some of the old timers whis­per­ing, ‘that wasn’t the lec­tion­ary read­ing!’ It was cus­tom­ary for the read­ing to be fol­lowed by com­ment­ary so the people wait expect­antly but what they even­tu­ally hear from Jesus shocks them pro­foundly. Jesus’ open­ing words are: “Today this Scrip­ture has been ful­filled in your hear­ing.” If you want to know what else Jesus says you will have to come back next week when our lec­tion­ary gives us the next sec­tion of the pas­sage but these open­ing words were pretty astound­ing. Jesus claims that the Spir­it of God is upon him and that he is the one who brings sight to the blind, he is the one who sets pris­on­ers free and he is the one has good news for the poor and oppressed. Jesus declares that these ancient words from the mouth of the proph­et Isai­ah are being ful­filled this very day and that Isai­ah was writ­ing about Jesus him­self. This was no bor­ing com­ment­ary, this stirred up the con­greg­a­tion and had every one riv­eted to their seats. Jesus brought the words of Scrip­ture alive. And he still does this today.

The first few gen­er­a­tions of Chris­ti­ans had no Bible. Jew­ish Chris­ti­ans knew the Hebrew Scrip­tures though they did not have access to the writ­ten word- scrolls were held in the syn­agogue. Most of the books of our New Test­a­ment were in cir­cu­la­tion by early in the Second Cen­tury but there was no attempt to make an author­it­at­ive list of books until much later in that cen­tury. The faith of the early Chris­ti­ans was groun­ded in a per­son, not in a book. The expres­sion, The Word of God was not a descrip­tion of the Bible but a ref­er­ence to Jesus or the oral mes­sage about Jesus. It was not until the 3rd Cen­tury at the earli­est that the Word of God was ref­er­enced to the Bible. So it is always good to remem­ber that we wor­ship a per­son, not a book. Hav­ing said that the Book is import­ant because in the book we meet Jesus and that is the first reas­on that we read the Bible. The early Chris­ti­ans accep­ted and con­tin­ued to revere the Hebrew Scrip­tures because they kept see­ing signs in them which poin­ted to Jesus. The pas­sage Jesus quoted in the syn­agogue in Naz­areth being a case in point.

The Bible as we know it is remark­able because it is both a human and a divine book. It is a col­lec­tion of 66 books, con­tain­ing his­tory, poetry, nar­rat­ive, law, songs, par­ables, and allegory. We believe that those who wrote the books of the Bible, did so moved by God’s spir­it but they also expressed some­thing of their own per­son­al­ity and exper­i­ence of life. To take one small example, it is inter­est­ing to com­pare the Greek of the four Gos­pel writers. Mark’s Greek is clumsy and some­times dif­fi­cult to fol­low, Luke’s is pol­ished and learned and dif­fi­cult for begin­ners to read because his vocab­u­lary is so large. John by con­trast is much easi­er because his vocab­u­lary is much smal­ler and he uses many of the same words over and over again. God did not dic­tate the words of Scrip­ture but he used fal­lible human beings to con­vey his mes­sage and that in my view is one of the remark­able things about the Bible. Even Paul on one or two occa­sions expresses the view that he thinks he is right about a par­tic­u­lar issue. So the Bible is God’s gift and we should read it as the people did in Nehemiah’s time find­ing it a source of good news and find­ing that the joy of the Lord is our strength. And each time we open the Bible to read it we should ask the Holy Spir­it to reveal more of him­self to us, for without the Holy Spir­it the Bible remains just anoth­er book. As the hymn writer put it: “bey­ond the sac­red page, I seek you Lord, my spir­it longs for you, O liv­ing Word.”

Finally, while it is good to read the Bible reg­u­larly ourselves it is also import­ant that we read and hear it in the con­text of wor­ship where we can have the bene­fit of expos­i­tion and instruc­tion. And as this is my last ser­mon in St. Luke’s as your Rect­or, I want to thank you all for your encour­age­ment and gen­er­ous feed­back as we have read and reflec­ted on the Scrip­tures togeth­er. May we all con­tin­ue to grow in grace and in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Philip Brad­ford