Last Sunday after Trinity, 29th October 2023, St Anne Lewes
Nehemiah 8.1-4a, 5-6, 8-12; Colossians 3.12-17; Matthew 24.30-35
I wonder how you responded when you saw the words ‘Bible Sunday’ at the top of today’s notice sheet? Did you feel a certain heaviness of spirit? If so, you’re not alone. But surely this is not the way it ought to be. Earlier this week I read an interview with the photographer Tim Walker, about his residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum. ‘When I see these wonderful objects’ he said, ‘it sets off a firework display in me, a supernova of creative explosion’. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘That’s what should happen to us when we engage with God through reading the Bible -a supernova of creative explosion’.
Our reading from the book of Nehemiah shows us something of this kind going on. This was a dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish nation. We are back in the 5th century BC, when Judah was part of the Persian empire. Nehemiah, an official at the royal court, felt God calling him to return to his own country and rebuild the city of Jerusalem, which the Babylonians had long ago destroyed. He found the city in ruins, but despite strong opposition he rallied the citizens and together they rebuilt the walls. When the work was finished, he gathered the people together and invited the priest Ezra to read to them from the Book of the Law of Moses.
There are lots of things to notice about this proclamation of Scripture. It was a very public event. We are told that Ezra brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who could understand, which must mean older children as well. The whole emphasis was to engage people’s hearts and minds, and their emotions too. Ezra stood high up where everyone could see him, and the people not only watched and listened but joined in, lifting their hands and bowing down in worship, crying ‘Amen’, weeping and rejoicing. The Levites went among the crowd to make sure everyone understood what was being said. And the day ended with a great celebratory feast.
Why do we find it so difficult to bring our whole selves to our reading and hearing of the Scriptures, to find in them the delight and the riches that warmed the hearts of that congregation so long ago? I think the essence of the problem is that we treat the Bible with the wrong kind of reverence. We can focus so much on the book itself that we can forget that we call it holy because it points to the mystery of the God who cannot be contained within its pages. There’s a lovely moment in John’s Gospel when Jesus makes this very point. He tells the religious leaders, ‘You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the wood for the trees. These Scriptures are about me. And here I am, standing right in front of you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want’.
God’s plan of salvation is worked out through human beings, culminating in Jesus himself, the Word made Flesh. And the Bible is a very human document, showing the people of Israel wrestling with their understanding of God, getting things wrong much of the time, and yet meeting over and over again God’s steadfast love and forgiveness. So, we shouldn’t be afraid to argue with it and to admit that we find parts of it difficult or even abhorrent. We can be creative with it too. If St Paul were with us now, I think he would first of all be astonished to find that his letters had become part of Holy Scripture, and then furious to find that the Church was tearing itself apart over some of his pronouncements abut gender and sexuality. I can imagine him saying, ‘These were the conclusions I came to when I was trying to work out how we should live in a way that would best proclaim Christ in the cities of the first century Roman Empire. Your situation is quite different. Work it out for yourselves, with the Holy Spirit as your guide’.
I make no apology for repeating a quote I have used before from my favourite American theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, because it goes to the heart of what we are talking about. She writes: ‘In an age of information overload, the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.’
Bible Sunday is an invitation to come to that knowledge of the living God through our creative engagement with the Scriptures. Please bring your ideas to Ben and Peter and me to help us do this better together. And I pray, as Paul did for the Colossians, that the word of Christ may dwell in us richly and that we may find in it inspiration, strength and food for the journey.