Matthew 24:30-35 ‘My words will never pass away.’
I wonder what the latest book is you have read, or the last book you read, or the last book you had read to you. When did you last really immerse yourself in a book?
I imagine for most of us it will have been either on holiday (if you have been lucky enough to have had one over the last few months) or in enforced lockdown. Or some of you might be prolific readers and enjoy reading all the time.
But do you like to read fact or fiction, or a mixture of the two? Do you like a good love story, crime or thriller? A story of everyday lives lived, a heroic story, a sad story or a happy story?
Most stories seem to have good endings, but you do get those with endings you least expect, or those which end on a cliff-hanger.
I confess I enjoy a mixture of fact and fiction, yet at present I find myself immersed in factual material mostly as a requirement of studying for ordination. It is then that reading is not for pleasure, but as a means to an end, as I read extracts from books and make notes for the next essay.
As part of the ordination process and selection, one of the questions often asked is: ‘If you had to spend some time on a desert island, what book would you take with you?’ Of course, they expect you to say ‘the Bible’ as, after all, you are going for ordination, but then they follow it up by saying: ‘You can’t say the Bible!’
Now that takes some thinking, because not only do you have to think carefully about books you have read but you also need to give the reasons why you think a particular book would sustain you in the desert.
So, anticipating that this question might arise in my own interviews (having been forewarned by others), I thought long and hard about this. The book I came up with is this book: ‘The Shack,’ which was used as part of the Course in Christian Studies. Why, you may well ask? Because to me it speaks words of hope and love and life in times of despair, in the darkest of moments.
It is fiction but through the story of Mac who is lost in brokenness and sadness at the loss of his daughter in tragic circumstances, he comes face to face with the Trinity – God the father (or mother in this case, known as Papa), God the Son (Jesus Christ – known as Yeshua) and God the Holy Spirit (a beautiful woman called Sarayu) who reveal to him the power of God’s love, and the power and need for forgiveness as he is confronted with his own past and pain.
In reading it, a number of questions unfold, questions which each one of us has deep within us. It doesn’t supply easy answers to questions but invites the reader to draw close to a God of mercy and love, in whom we find hope and healing. As one review puts it:
‘It is a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart and nature of God in the midst of agonising human suffering. It is a beautiful story of how God comes to us in the midst of our storms, trapped by disappointments, betrayed by our own presumptions. He never leaves us where He finds us, unless we insist, but carries us through the storms.’
I figure, on a desert island where I would be alone and vulnerable, I would need something to lead me back to God, to give me hope and strength through the storms of life, and so this is the book I would choose. But of course, the book I really would most need is the Bible.
Today is Bible Sunday.
The Bible is by far the most important book ever written – at least to us in the Christian faith. But it isn’t just one book, it is a collection of books, containing all kinds of genre. Just like I mentioned at the beginning with the other books, it is full of stories – stories of everyday lives lived. It contains love stories – Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Ruth and Boaz, Mary and Joseph; it’s full of crime stories – Cain and Abel, the killing of the kings in the Northern Kingdom, the Good Samaritan, the killing of Christ; it contains thrillers – the plagues of Egypt and fleeing from Egypt, the battle of Jericho, the betrayal by Judas, Joseph’s coat of many colours; there are heroic stories – David and Goliath, the slaying of the dragons in Revelation, Moses and Pharoah’s daughter; it has instructions – the 10 commandments, the Leviticus laws, proverbs, Jesus’ teachings; there is poetry – the Psalms, the love poetry of Song of Songs; there are plenty of biographies – of lives lived and lost, and plenty of historical facts; but it is also a horoscope because it predicts life for the future.
Not all of the stories have good endings (in fact most of them are quite gruesome) but one thing is for sure – it is the best selling book of all time, and the most widely distributed, with over 100 million copies sold or given away for free every year in the world.
It has been translated into 349 languages, with the King James version, which came into print in 1611, being the most widely used in our churches until the present day, although there have been several revised versions.
Today there are many different versions and translations. It is how God speaks to us as Christians. Take away the Bible from us and God is silent. The voice of heaven is heard in the printed sentences of God’s Word in the Scriptures and nowhere else. As the Gospel reading from Matthew today says:
‘My words will never pass away.’
While the Word of God we find in it is unchanging from generation to generation however, language is a dynamic and ever changing form of communication so we have a responsibility as Christians to make sure that each generation has a modern translation which can be easily understood. This is what the church is trying to do today – to make the Word of god understood by all.
Over the centuries Christians have approached the Bible in many different ways. We have moved from a society in the past where very few people could read it and had it interpreted by the church. Fire and brimstone was the order of the day and if you didn’t attend church or confess your sins then you were eternally condemned. This was the type of church I grew up in, and the God portrayed to me through the scriptures. The God of our past was to be feared, not loved. Several of the sermons experienced by many of us were based on Old Testament prophecies. We didn’t question it. There was a strong emphasis on what God was saying and we were expected to believe it word for word. This meant we didn’t get involved in church. We just attended every Sunday and that was it. We didn’t truly know God.
If you’re from my generation or above, you’ll remember sermons were based on the King James version of the Bible, with language which was difficult to understand. There was little interaction in services, no visual aids, and children were not really welcomed into services. Consequently, many people grew up fearing the church and moved away from God.
However, over the last 50 years there has been some change. The Bible has been approached in many different ways, having a different impact on our services and on our lives as Christians, leading to us becoming a more inclusive church. People have been encouraged to become more involved in the church through children’s and pastoral work, youth ministry, prayer and study groups and music.
Sermons in churches today I hope reflect the changes in the interpretations of the Bible during the last half century, with reading often being taken from different Bible versions which make them easier to understand in the modern, spoken, conversational language of the day.
Whereas in the past we didn’t question what we were being told or the traditions of the church, today we are encouraged to question and study these, as questioning aids our understanding, therefore our faith grows – its not just blind faith, but faith based on our own beliefs, our own meeting with Christ, and getting to know Him through the Bible and in our church communities.
Many churches today use props and visual aids to encourage their congregations, these bring the Bible to life. Some time ago during one sermon at our church the vicar began his message but was then interrupted by his mobile phone. You could see the congregation looking around and tutting as if to say ‘How dare he?!’ but it was all part of the sermon and the message given about how God speaks to people – you can bet that everyone remembered that message for years to come.
At another service coming up to Christmas, the vicar produced an Advent calendar containing chocolates. He talked about how these calendars had changed over time, while passing it round and letting everyone eat chocolate – today we’d probably have a cheese calendar, beer or gin calendar which would certainly get people thinking! But that sermon certainly got across the message of Advent. You definitely wouldn’t have had interaction of this kind in the past.
Through different interpretations of the Scriptures, sermons and services all over the country today have come to life, have more meaning to people and encourage our faith. God is seen as a God of love and the true Father figure He is meant to be.
All this has meant that the Church for us has become a way of life, the way God intended it to be. God has ceased to become the creator who we only visited on Sundays and didn’t give a thought to until the nest week. God has become accessible and real. We have met with Him and got to know Him and continue to walk on our journey through life with him.
Most of us have our own grief, broken dreams and damaged hearts, each of us has our own losses, our own ‘Shack.’ But the grace and presence of God can be found in the Bible, in the abiding presence of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and will fill your inside emptiness with joy inseparable and full of glory. You just have to make the time and effort to read it.