Today is Bible Sunday, the day in the church calendar when we ask God’s help, as today’s special prayer put it, to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.
I wonder how you feel about the Bible? You may be an old hand, who’s been reading it for many decades, but for many people it’s a closed book – in every sense of that phrase – a baffling tome that seems so irrelevant and outdated. What on earth is it about? Where do we even start? How can we understand it? Do we need to take it all literally if we want to call ourselves Christians? If these are your questions, then you aren’t alone.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear me say that I think reading the Bible is a Good Idea. That’s not just because I’m a vicar, but the Bible records the voices of countless people who’ve gone through the same human experiences and trials we all do, and encountered God within them. As we listen in, we can often hear that “still small voice” speaking to us too.
The Bible isn’t a simple instruction manual, though. It’s not even one book, but many different writings put together over a period of more than 600 years. It’s not always internally consistent. Why should it be? No one who wrote the books that made it up ever imagined they would all be bound in one volume.
It’s often in dialogue with itself. Jesus himself argues with the Scriptures. “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” he says, quoting the Old Testament book of Exodus(21.24) . “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In fact the ancient law was intended to place a limit on the retribution people could inflict if they were hurt – they could only take an “eye for an eye”, not more, as they might be tempted to – but Jesus calls his followers to show generous mercy.
He wasn’t doing anything new in reinterpreting the words he’d grown up with. It’s what serious students of the Hebrew Bible were expected to do, weighing up the many different images of God it contained, different understandings of life and death, and what comes after it, different ideas about how people should relate to each other, arguing with one another, reinterpreting in the light of new experience. If we want to read the Bible seriously, and feel the breath of God coming off its pages, we need that same open-minded, open-hearted approach to it.
The Bible is a treasure chest to delight in, and if ever we needed its rich array of stories, poetry and wisdom it is now, because it was almost all written in times of crisis and trauma, times when its writers and readers had their backs to the wall, when the future looked bleak - times like our own, in other words.
The books of what we call the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish people – were largely drawn together just before, during and after their deportation into exile in Babylon. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, and taken its people away across the desert. In a foreign land, powerless, often brutalised, many of them became convinced that this was the end for them. But others looked back at the ancient stories that they’d heard and told around their camp fires for centuries and found new meanings in them in the light of the present disaster. Eventually they shaped them into a new narrative which spoke to them of God’s love and faithfulness. The world had been created good, and God had delighted in it, said the stories. He wanted nothing more than to be close to his people and have them close to him. But soon things went wrong – the story of Adam and Eve cast out of Eden symbolised that. But did God give up on them? No. He went out into the wilderness with them, calling to them, guiding them, forgiving them, turning up again and again, looking for goodness amidst the self-inflicted chaos of the world, nurturing small seeds of hope. Even when the people became slaves in Egypt, said the story, God didn’t forget them. He raised up an unlikely hero, Moses, to confront Pharaoh and lead them out of slavery. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.
Imagine hearing those stories, reframed by this new time of trial in Babylon. “God was with us then,” they said, “even though we didn’t always know it at the time. Even when we’d given up on God, God never gave up on us. And if he didn’t then, maybe he hasn’t given up on us now either.” It was a message of hope in a time when hope seemed all but extinguished.
Today’s Old Testament passage told the story of the reading of those old stories of Moses shortly after the exile, when some of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. How should they rebuild? What could they make of the ruins they’d been left with, along with those who’d been left behind, abandoned to try to survive amidst the rubble? The ancient tales, reshaped, brought them to their knees in mourning and repentance for what had gone wrong, but also gave them hope for the future, which sent them home rejoicing.
The New Testament too was written against a backdrop of trauma. It was written for small, scattered groups of Jesus’ followers who were trying to live out the message he had taught against a backdrop of intermittent persecution. The Gospels date from between 30-50 years after the time of Jesus crucifixion – a bit like writing about the 70s and 80s now - far enough away to reflect on with a bit of perspective, but well within living memory for many. By the time the Gospels were being written, the beautiful city of Jerusalem had been destroyed again, this time by the Romans, and its people driven out around the ancient world, This disaster resulted in savage arguments and infighting in the Jewish community, and the followers of Jesus were often caught up in this, because Christianity was still just a reforming group within Judaism at that point. It looked as if this tiny new movement would be swept away before it had a chance to grow. But the Gospel writers, like those earlier Hebrew scribes, pointed their readers back to the story that had begun their movement, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was a story of apparent failure and hopelessness, his humiliating execution, but it had become the well-spring of their faith. Jesus’ resurrection had upended the expectations of the world, which said that the might of Rome, like that of Babylon, would always rule, and that cruelty and hatred would always have the last word. “Heaven and earth will pass away” says Jesus in the passage we heard today, “but my words will not pass away.” His words would be the words that endured.
And so it has proved to be. The Roman Empire, like the Babylonians before it, is long gone, but people still find life and hope in the words of Jesus.
So, should we read the Bible? Yes, we should. That doesn’t mean taking it literally, and certainly not looking to it for easy answers, but if we read it with open minds and hearts, we can still feel the breath of God come from its pages to breathe his life into our weary souls, to revive us and give us hope amidst the fears and troubles of our present age.