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.