Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Sermon - 25th October (Bible Sunday)

It was my supervisor's idea... but I agreed. Miraculously we got about 10 others who signed up too!

You have perhaps heard about the minister, who announced to his congregation one Sunday: “Next week my sermon will address the sin of lying. To prepare yourselves for it, please read the seventeenth chapter of Mark’s gospel.”
The following Sunday arrived, and he asked “Do you remember last week I asked you to read Mark 17 – how many of you read it?”
Most of the congregation raised their hands.
“Good,” he replied. “There are only 16 chapters in Mark. Now for the sermon on the sin of lying…”

Did you know that? Perhaps some of you, as I was telling that story, were thinking, ‘Hang on, is there a seventeenth chapter?’ while others perhaps wouldn’t have known. And you might say ‘well, that’s just Bible trivia’ – knowing the number of chapters in a given book. You might know the number of books in the Bible (66) – but what about the number of chapters in the whole Bible? 1189. The number of verses? 31102 (according to one count).
Although in other translations, languages and traditions, these figures would be somewhat different, depending on the inclusion or exclusion of certain books, chapters and verses – and the Jewish Bible does not count 39 books (as in our Old Testament), but just 24.

In our reading from Isaiah, we heard a broad invitation, issued by God, through the prophet: Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, come without money and buy … without cost.

Those who would have heard this message were Jews in Babylon - technically exiles from their homeland, but were probably one or two generations removed from those who had been taken from Judah. They would have been settled, possibly happy – many would have been prosperous.

And they might have lost confidence in God, thinking that because they had been taken to Babylon, that meant God had been unable to help them – was unable to help them now.

I don’t know if this rings any bells with anyone? True, most of us may still be living in the country, even the area or town where we were born and brought up, but the world has changed around us. Effectively we are exiles from our history – as we grew up perhaps we had God, Sunday School, the church as constants, part of life we could depend on, something that was universal. And now? We see and hear (or we avoid hearing) news of declining membership, linking and uniting churches, redundant buildings. We hear the ‘new atheists’, loudly challenging and attacking religion, and perhaps we find it harder to hear the people who are arguing back.

Maybe we feel settled, comfortable, in this new world, where we have enough confidence to continue in our own faith, but not enough to share it with others, to put forward Christianity in conversations with our friends. It’s something we do, not something we talk about.

Our people in Babylon then hear this message:
– part of a greater message to them: Come, come and drink, come and be part of what your families were once part of – go out with joy and be led forth with peace – you can rely on God’s word, it will do what God intends!

And suddenly, earlier parts of Isaiah’s prophecy start coming true! God’s people would be freed from their captivity, they would get to leave Babylon, and God’s instrument for doing this was to be Cyrus the Persian leader.

God’s word starts to look a lot more dependable, something they could rely on. And in fact, if they had looked further back, even their captivity was foretold – God promised – if you obey the law, I’ll bless you, but if you don’t listen, there will be progressively worse consequences, ending in exile!

From our perspective there are even more reasons to depend on God’s word – notably prophecies of the Messiah which we see fulfilled in the life, ministry and passion of Jesus Christ.

However, it’s not just the Bible’s ability to tell the future that should convince us of its dependability, it is also its accurate portrayal of humanity, the human condition – that despite being made in the image of God, we ultimately stumble, fall and fail – whether you call that sin, or wrongdoing, or selfishness. Consider any local newspaper ‘police’ column, or perhaps any tv news bulletin – and need I mention the expenses scandal?

And generations of Christians have found that not only is the Bible dependable, it is the route to a relationship with God through Jesus, and to a process of change and transformation in their lives. From the Apostle Paul to CS Lewis, through to many current writers, thinkers - and church members today.

If the Bible’s reliability and dependability is recognised, is that as far as we go? What did the Jews in Babylon do? They took the word seriously, and returned to Judah.

And what do we do? The Bible is often quoted as being the bestseller of all time, but the least read book of all time.
I suggest – we suggest – that we can try and change that.
[My supervisor] and I are going to register for a scheme to read the Bible through in one year. Now as you may well know or realise, simply starting at Genesis and working on from there soon becomes self-defeating, but there are many reading plans which offer an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a Psalm and perhaps some of Proverbs. In the scheme we are going to register with, a copy of the Bible printed in the dated daily portions, under the banner of ‘Every Day with Jesus’ – a daily devotional written by Selwyn Hughes.

How long would that take, do I hear you ask?
Well, a former lecturer of mine at college used to start the Old Testament course with a class entitled ‘Through the Old Testament in 90 minutes!’ And he succeeded – although we didn’t read it all word-for word! But if you remember, the total number of chapters in the Bible is 1189 – so dividing by 365 days gives 3 and a quarter chapters to be read per day, on average.
Now you might consider that quite a lot – but remember, public readings of the Bible are often read at a slower pace than personal reading, and that can be good technique in a big church, to allow everyone to follow. But on your own, you might read a chapter in five minutes or less. You might want to take more time to think about it, but you could easily fit in a chapter in a spare few minutes – just after a meal, or in a break, or if you use public transport.

Ah but you might say, what if I don’t understand one part. The same Old Testament lecturer would say ‘don’t worry, put that issue ‘on the mantelpiece’ so to speak – not to ignore it, but to hold it for a while – it’s very likely that something you don’t understand now will become clearer later. If we continually stop and try to get it all perfected in our heads, we will not get very far.

Anyone who has tried any sort of daily discipline of Bible reading, or prayer, might just say ‘I’m bound to miss a day’ or end up giving up. However, this is not about ‘another thing to buy’ or having ‘another thing to fall down doing – whether in January 14th, or Feb, May, Oct, whenever. But an encouragement to do what many want to do – to know the Bible better – why? : to challenge the preacher?! – to understand the context – to do more than just take part in selective quoting of individual verses? (which almost everyone indulges in from time to time)

And imagine how you might feel, how you might be changed, by a daily 5 or 10 or 15 minutes of reading the whole Bible? Is it like Munro-bagging – do you do it, just to say ‘I’ve climbed them all?’ Or are there other benefits – the fitness and exercise developed by regular climbs; the going to places you don’t often go or haven’t been before; the unexpected sights and vistas that you discover along the way?

So here is our question, our challenge to you – will you join us? You can express interest today; or you can think about it – maybe try reading a chapter or three one day this week and see how long it takes. Or try working your way through one of the shorter books – Mark’s gospel for example! – before next Sunday. Then once we have an idea of interest, we can order the Bibles in November, get them in December, and start in January. The benefit of doing this as a community, should be clear – we can encourage and motivate each other, and talk about parts we found challenging. Then we may rediscover the truth of Paul’s words to Timothy:
(2 Tim 3:16) All Scripture is God-breathed, and useful for rebuking, teaching, training in righteousness
and be taken back by God to our ‘homeland’, our heritage as a country known to be steeped in the Good Book.

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