Sunday 25 October 2020: Bible Sunday
Is the Bible an open book?
Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 8-12; Psalm 119/119:9-16
Context: a mixed, but mainly elderly, suburban congregation
Aim: to celebrate our Bibles
When I retired from ministry in north London I was given a copy of an English translation of the Koran by a Muslim community that we had worked closely with for five years. It is a treasured gift as I appreciated that they were sharing with me a copy of that which was most precious to them; though I also appreciated that they would only have read or shared it in the original language.
We take for granted that our Bibles are in the language that we use every day. As our language changes through common usage, so new Youth and Streetwise versions of the familiar stories of our faith are shared. Though it does seem that the more ‘trendy’ the version becomes, the quicker it loses its ‘street cred’!
However, as the Jews returned from their exile, they were in many cases ignorant of their faith tradition, the stories of their faith and the religious texts that supported this. They had married into their host community. The background to the traditions that might have been passed down through the home were perhaps no longer fully understood. So, as well as the need to physically rebuild a Temple, the people needed to find a way to recommit themselves to God.
Whilst some of the steps that were taken as a result of this recommitment were perhaps more extreme that we might feel were acceptable today, this was the response, at the time, of a people who had had a collective traumatic experience. Perhaps we are able to understand why people might ‘over-react’ in such a situation, having seen the panic buying of items that were not in short supply, but which as a result became so, in recent months.
Along with our brothers and sisters who are Muslim and Jewish, we value the words of our Bible and the stories of the children of Abraham. The stories of Jesus’ life and ministry are vital to our life as his disciples today. Each of our Gospel writers has highlighted the stories and the issues that had relevance for their own community. This can give us a confusing image as stories appear to conflict with one another. But the stories all help us to understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and its relevance in our own lives.
WITH THE SPIRIT’S AID
For me, the great strength of the Bible is that it is not always easy to understand. A passage or a story may say one thing to us at one time, and something completely different at another time. That may sound odd, but it is because we read these words in the light of the Holy Spirit. The words may have been inspired by God or reflect the concerns of a community of God’s people at a particular time.
As our needs change at different times we are given different insights into the stories of our faith. This experience makes me very anxious about phrases like Biblical Truth, or Biblical Meanings. It is as if we want to put limits on God’s capacity to speak to the people of God as they engage with the text, rather than seeing the opportunity for exploration and new discoveries. It is as if we want to control God’s word, and that always leaves me worrying about whether we are following the guidance of Jesus, or of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who seemed to want to do things ‘by the book.’
Perhaps a part of our trouble is that we are used to a concept of ‘scientific truth,’ which seems to imply that something is absolutely true, whatever that means. Yet, with the wonder and the limitations of scientific knowledge that have so recently been highlighted we could perhaps reflect on a different approach to our scriptures.
In science I believe that the questions asked are about what has happened and how this has happened. As we come to our scripture, we are given some clues to answer the question why things have happened as they have. All are important questions to be asking, but actually, they are very different. I suspect that the last few months may have taught us that we should be cautious of those who offer us answers that are described in absolute terms, whether on matters of science or of faith.
So, let us rejoice that we have a treasure house of stories and sayings that offer us insights into the nature of God and of Jesus. Let us return to the words of the Psalms, which remind us that we can address our joy, our pain, our anger and our love to God, just as the people of God have done over the centuries.
Thanks be to the God who loves us!
The Jewish Study Bible – Tanakh Translation; Editors Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler; OUP, 1999.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV with Apocrypha); Editor Michael Coogan; OUP, 1989
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