Mary’s Sermon for Bible Sunday 2016

Readings:

Romans 15.1-6

Luke 4.16-24

….whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Let me take you to an ordinary Sabbath day in the remote Galilean village of Nazareth sometime around the year 30 AD. One that turned out to be a climactic moment in the history of God’s people. Luke, like all the gospel writers, was a consummate story teller: he knew how to build up a picture gradually, setting the scene and allowing the tension to mount.  imagine this was a film script: Jesus returns to his home town, Nazareth, perched on the side of a steep valley.  The people have heard of what he has been doing, healing and preaching in Capernaum, down by the lakeside. But surely he’s one of them, their boy – some of them don’t believe it and some of them are anxious to see what he will do.… He goes to the synagogue and stands to read… the scroll is given to him, he unrolls it. it’s Isaiah, where some of the most powerful messianic prophecies are found… very deliberately he finds the place and reads one of those prophecies… he rolls the scroll up again, gives it to the attendant and sits down – the traditional posture for teaching in the synagogue… Luke is really milking it, making us wait with this unusually detailed account of Jesus’ every move… at last the pause ends and Jesus speaks – today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing! 

….whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

It’s one thing to believe, as the Jews certainly did, that Scripture was written for their instruction and encouragement, to help them to be steadfast as they waited for the Messiah. They would have been expecting Jesus to speak to them about how they would recognise the Messiah, how the Messiah would do the wonderful things prophesied by Isaiah: establish justice, peace, prosperity, overthrow the oppression of the Romans – restore the golden age of David.

But they didn’t expect it to be today, or him – “is not this Joseph’s son?”

Jesus’ teaching that day represents his claim to be the messiah. By saying that today the passage is fulfilled in their hearing, he is saying that it is about him. This is who he is.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Today, on this Bible Sunday, however great or sketchy our knowledge of Scripture may be, are we truly expecting prophecies to be fulfilled, expecting God to be at work in our lives, expecting and allowing the example of Jesus to strengthen us to witness to God’s love and to live in harmony as Paul writes to the Romans that they must. What can we learn about the numbing, inoculating effect of the familiar from the way the people reacted to Jesus’ claim – how they couldn’t believe this local boy was more than just the carpenter’s son, however well he spoke, and how after he faced them with some home truths about the way God had been working not only for his Jewish children but also for Gentiles down the centuries, how they rejected him entirely and tried to push him over the cliff.

But at least they knew enough to know what he was saying. Do we, would we?  I think we need to recognise, today, on this Bible Sunday, what it was that made the people of Nazareth able to understand the implications of what Jesus was saying. It was because they, like their descendants today, were utterly familiar with Scripture and the promises of God to his people: steeped in God’s purposes for them. This was why they were able to grasp the huge claim Jesus was making.  For the Jews the scriptures were their whole life: all their hope was embodied in them… they studied them as they had been commanded – Deut 11: where it says

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,

Jesus has this commitment too, an utter commitment to the hallowed words he had known since childhood and there in Nazareth he shares his understanding with his people. But its clear from his words that he understands the radical countercultural potential of scripture. In fact, if you think about it, it was his constant radical interpretation of scripture that got him into trouble – far more than any flouting of it.

But so often we sanitise, neutralise the radical message of God. John Pritchard has written that it takes someone with a big vision to point out the implications of what has become too familiar to us. He quotes Mahatma Gandhi: ‘You Christians look after a document containing

enough dynamite to blow all civilisations to pieces, turn the world upside down, and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it’s nothing more than a piece of literature!”

It can be worse than that – we – many of us – treat it like a part of the furniture, kept on a shelf, kept by our beds, hidden in plain sight, cocooned in and mined for its comforting familiarity, never allowed to catch fire, still less to set us on fire….

contrast this with Paul:

….whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

The Bible Society website and publications are full of stories about the power of the Bible, to instruct, strengthen, encourage, bring hope. To transform lives in places where change and hope are desperately needed. People for whom our free access to the Bible would be a miracle would find it hard to understand why we seem to care so little about it. But I think, for us here in church at least, it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we can’t see it, simply because it’s so familiar. We’ve been desensitised to its dynamic power, its wonder,

When we’d finished the wiring and electrical work in St Barts the whole building was covered in sticky dust and the necessary cleaning provided an opportunity to look at things which were part of the furniture and suddenly realise that they weren’t, and that some of them could be better used elsewhere and that some of them we didn’t need. This was particularly true in the inner vestry. For the last 5 years I’d been looking at the row of books on the windowsill, none of which were ever touched, and thinking that one day I’d sort them out and decide which were useful – or might be useful – and which needed new homes. It only took 5 years and a major project to make me actually do it! Amongst the outdated prayer books and obsolete lectionaries I found 15 or 20 Bibles. One was in Urdu and one was a Greek New Testament: the rest were mainly King James with a sprinkling of more modern translations. They had become invisible, part of the furniture, hay in a haystack rather than needles. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to say that you can neuter the message of the Bible, but putting them in a heap on an inaccessible shelf had certainly made sure that those particular books were not going to do what they had been created to do. So if anyone wants a Bible – if you don’t have one, if you’re not quite sure where it is, have a word with me, come and choose one – and we’ll free that paper and ink to come alive in heart and mind. , so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures you may have hope

And for those of you who have their Bibles to hand at home, whether or not you read them regularly, here’s my challenge. Sometime today, sit down and begin by reading a favourite passage. Then carry on reading and see what God says. Remember how Jesus shocked the people of Nazareth by showing them a familiar passage in a new light. Allow God to speak, at the time or later. Ask what your role is in spreading the gospel message here and today.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

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