John 5 36- end; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5
Today the Church celebrates Bible Sunday – a celebration of what is the world’s best-selling book of all time. A book so controversial that in some countries it is banned. A book so popular that it has been translated into virtually every language known to humanity.
Today we have the opportunity not only to give thanks for the power of scripture but also to appreciate that we enjoy the freedom to be able to turn to scripture whenever we want unlike those parts of the world where just to own a Bible is to risk imprisonment, let alone to have the luxury of being able to spend time openly reading and discussing its content.
As I was preparing for today, I decided to count how many Bibles I own – and its actually not that many, only twelve (not including the one I have on my phone!) Each of them, however, is very precious to me for different reasons and I have brought three of them to share with you today.
First is this one which belonged to my long-deceased aunt Meg. She was given this Bible in July 1931 and it is inscribed “Converted Salvation Army
– I touched the hem of his garment” My aunt died tragically young and I never knew her but through this small volume I feel a real connection with her especially as it was at the Salvation Army where I too came to faith.
Then there is this one which is actually only a New Testament that I bought myself on 10th July 1974 in York Minster at the age of 10. I can’t remember what thoughts were in my head when I handed over my holiday spending money – but what I do know is that God placed those thoughts in my childish head and He knew for what purpose.
And lastly there is this one – which I received from this congregation on the occasion of my licensing on 19th July 2017. The inscription inside reads “Jane, be among us as a woman who studies scripture, proclaims the Word and explores the faith” – words from the liturgy of the licensing service which remain fresh in my mind and which I endeavour to live out every day.
Each Bible is very different – in size, age and translation – ranging from a King James version to The Message. Each of them is very dear to me, as are the other nine each evoking powerful emotions as they tell the story of my journey in faith.
But fundamentally each of them is the same. Each of them tells the story of God’s relationship with His people, from the very birth of creation through to the prophetic visions of the revelation. They may use different forms of language but the message contained within each doesn’t vary – each proclaim that God is love and that he desires nothing more than for each of HIs precious children to know Him and to be part of his mission to build his kingdom in the beautiful world that he has entrusted to our stewardship
The importance of scripture cannot be underestimated. Without scripture our Christian faith would have struggled to survive. While I appreciate that there some cultures in the world that rely solely on an oral tradition of passing on wisdom and knowledge, I think it is unlikely that Christianity could have either endured or indeed spread across the globe had there not been a written recording of both the history, custom and practice of our faith and also most importantly of the words spoken by Jesus during his ministry on earth.
Of course, unlike the Islamic view of the Koran, we do not believe that the Bible is the literal dictated word of God. But we do know, as our reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy tells us, that it is God breathed. In Hebrew the word breath is ruach which is also the word for the Holy Spirit. Such a beautiful word, the sound of which conveys from whom scripture comes.
Knowing that God has breathed on Scripture means we should cherish and value it. Loving God is the first and greatest commandment and Scripture is an irreplaceable part of loving God, because the more we know God, the more we will love him. Without regularly listening to God through his word, we will not grow in our love and intimacy with him.
God may not have literally dictated the words of the Bible to a single person in the way that Muslims believe Allah did through Mohammed but there can be no doubt the Bible is the Word of God.
In what was probably one of his last letters before his execution Paul reminds Timothy of the importance of the study of scripture – how it provides teaching, advice and guidance to us as we Iive out our faith, how it trains us in righteousness.
Paul exhorts Timothy to preach the word, to get out there into the world and tell people about Jesus and what he has done for humanity, the sacrifice that he has made that we might live for ever. Paul is handing over his mantle to Timothy – he calls him to do the work of an evangelist and reminds him of the challenges that this will bring and how best he can deal with them – keep your head, endure hardship, discharge the duties of your ministry.
Paul is very aware that there are many who will interpret scripture to suit their own ends and that there will be others who won’t want to hear the truth of scripture, who can’t deal with the realities of what the word of God requires of them if they are to truly be of service to God, living out the Gospel message.
Jesus is the only way that we can be reconciled with God. It is through Jesus alone that we can be saved from sin and experience life in all its fulness, and thus scripture is essential to our salvation because how else will we know about Christ?
Even in his own earthly ministry Jesus was constantly referring to the Old Testament scriptures, quoting them, explaining them, showing how his life, death and resurrection were fulfilling all that the Scriptures foretold.
This theme of interpreting scripture for the purposes of humanity is also reflected by the words of Jesus in this week’s Gospel reading
Jesus is clear that through the study of scripture God’s voice can be heard. However, He is fully aware that the minds of many are closed to the true meaning of scripture. He points out that despite the hours of apparent study that the Pharisees undertake they fail to understand what God is saying to them – because if they did, they would know that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, as the prophetic words of the Old Testament clearly indicate. The Pharisees choose to interpret scripture in the context of a self-seeking society for whom the approval of others is more important that the approval of God. And there is a danger that we too can misuse scripture for our own ends. The way in which we choose to interpret the word of God varies. When you consider how many translations there are of the Bible then it is hardly surprising that there is room for a range of opinions on what is both being said and what this actually means for our lives. There are sadly many examples of the Bible being used as a tool for punishment, as a means of making judgments on others, as a way of justifying cruelty.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for the lack of love of God they have in their hearts. It is this that prevents them from truly seeing the beauty of His word, of understanding what God is saying through scripture and using this understanding to live as God would wish us to.
Because the reality is that scripture is not just useful for our coming to faith, or even just for our growing in faith – scripture is essential equipment when it comes to serving God in the world. God expects us to do good, and Christians are supposed to make a positive impact in our world demonstrating the mercy, grace and compassion of God to those in need. We will be empowered and equipped to do this through the God-breathed scriptures. Reading the Bible should inspire us to serve God more wholeheartedly but it should also equip us to serve with wisdom and humility. The more you serve in the world, the more you realise the wisdom of scripture. The more you read scripture the more you are motivated to serve in the world. It is a virtuous circle.
We are blessed in being able to turn to scripture whenever we choose. We need not fear for our lives simply because we own a copy of the Bible.
However we have acquired our personal copies of the Bible we should not become complacent. We should always revere scripture as the foundation of our faith, as the way through which we can meet with God, as the means by which we can be drenched with his wisdom and love.
Paul spells out to Timothy that vital to his faith were the sacred writings faithfully passed on to him by his mother and grandmother. We all have a responsibility to help those we love to hear and be inspired by the Word of God. We need to excite and inspire people to hear or read the scriptures so that their minds and hearts might be opened to the beauty and wonder of the gospel. Paul in his letter to the Romans makes it very clear: ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
So this Bible Sunday let us give thanks for scripture and endeavour to place it at the centre of our faith, a living and dynamic source of wisdom and guidance without which we cannot hope to fulfil our potential as disciples of Jesus. The word of God blesses us in so many ways. Let us seek to be a blessing to others by pointing them to this precious book, that they too may come to know Jesus as we do and be guided by scripture to live the fullness of life that God longs for them to have. Amen.