Sermon for Bible Sunday: Bible Sunday: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 24 October 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (1 Timothy 3: 14 – 4.5; John 5: 36b – end)
“Here is wisdom; this is the royal law. These are the lively oracles of God.”
Those words have not been used in a service since June 1953, when our Queen was presented, during the Coronation, with the Bible – “this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords,” as it is described in the service.
It is, as we know, much more than a book. It is a whole library of history, philosophy, poetry, theology and prophecy, whose narrative, taken as a whole, reveals our developing moral awareness, our reaching out to God and His response of salvation. It is a movement from the earthly to the heavenly, as spiritual awareness deepens. Moreover, as St Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, scripture is “inspired by God”, so that the “godly person may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Jesus’ contention in our Gospel is that all the scriptures (not only the N.T.) point towards him as saviour and the gateway to eternal life: “it is they that bear witness to me,” he says. Yet he laments that his Jewish listeners do not see this, as indeed they did not when he first came back to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. On that occasion, you may recall, he read from the prophet Isaiah this passage: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” When he suggests to his old townsfolk that he is the fulfilment of this prophecy, they are at first bemused – “the carpenter’s son!” – and then angry.
We too may perhaps need a word of caution. The books of the Bible span many hundreds of years and embrace varied styles and types of literature. We believe that they are inspired by God; but it would be a mistake to approach, for instance, the poetry of the psalms or the vivid imagery of Revelation in the same way as we might consider the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The former may speak to us of the mystery of God, while the latter we may receive as moral instruction (even if tinged with Jesus’ well-known rabbinic hyperbole on occasion).
Nor is it helpful to take bits of scripture out of context and bend them to our own preferred interpretation. I remember, many years ago, a country churchwarden, of military disposition, showing me with glee a newspaper article which claimed that Jesus’ statement, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword”, meant that warfare was part of the Christian’s identity – rather a large part. I had to point out to my friend the churchwarden that, in this context, Jesus was referring to the possibly divisive nature of his ministry and teaching: by no means would everyone accept it, and – regrettably – it might even divide families. I don’t think he believed me.
The Collect today – one of Cranmer’s best known – prays that we may not only read the scriptures (important as that is), but also “mark, learn and inwardly digest them”. They are the bedrock of our faith, but we are urged to read them intelligently and perceptively; to see the layers of meaning – the spiritual strata, if you like – beneath the initial message. So it is of great importance to have a working knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments, to see how the New springs from the Old, which points forward to the completion of God’s salvation. Those poignant suffering servant verses from Isaiah that we had last Sunday have been taken by Christians down the centuries as a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” And its redemptive message: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows …. and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The movement in Holy Scripture which I spoke of, from the earthly to the heavenly, from life to death to life, finds its counterpart in the way we should, ideally, live our lives and focus our attention.
As ever, George Herbert expresses this “double motion” – the earthly entwined with the heavenly in our lives – with consummate skill and felicity. His poem takes St Paul’s words, “Our life is hid with Christ in God’ and binds a variation of them diagonally into the lines, as you can see. The movement of the sun is used to shine light on the movement of the Son of God, who came down from heaven as a human, but was raised to heaven in his resurrection. So with all our lives, there is this double tension. The diurnal (daily) sun moves straight from east to west. But Herbert also speaks of its oblique motion, whereby it appears to shift from west to east over a year by 10 in relation to the stars. This slightly obscure piece of astronomy is used to illustrate the slow but sure movement of our lives from their normal, earthly existence towards their heavenly goal.
Our life is hid with Christ in God
My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The other Hid and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapped In flesh, and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.
(George Herbert 1593 – 1633)