The Bible

Sunday 4th December 2016
Year A, The Second Sunday of Advent
St Luke's, Brighton
Parish Eucharist
Isaiah 11.1-10
Romans 15.4-13

I love sport. Every Saturday I hunker down in my little private room with Radio Five Live, a couple of cigars and a couple of bottles of beer and listen to the football. But what I can't stand is all the chat before and after. I just want the real event. After all, if all the predictions were correct, if sport wasn't full of twists and turns, we wouldn't bother with it.

Today is the launch in our Diocese of the Year of The Bible, so let us be clear from the start. There is a great deal of theological commentary about the one-ness of The Bible, that every verse is of equal value, that it is, to use a technical term "indivisible" but never be in any doubt, whatever people say, that the main event is Jesus. Many Southern Baptists in the United States who call themselves Christians barely mention Jesus and, to listen to some Evangelicals you would think that Saint Paul is more important than Jesus but, I say again, be in no doubt, the complete collection of books which we call the Bible are, in their different ways, documents relating to Jesus.

In the first instance, our understanding of Jesus must begin with the Creation of the Father and from there the Old Testament proceeds to describe the relationship with God and his Chosen people. Then in the New Testament we hear about the actions and teachings of Jesus in Gospels which are as close as we will ever get to hearing from God. And, finally, there are letters and the Book of Revelation which try to make sense of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus and link it back to Creation and the Chosen people. So, in our readings today, we read Isaiah saying that the dynasty of King David, whose father was Jesse, will produce a great king; and then we read Saint Paul looking back on Isaiah saying that Jesus was that king; but we are not entitled to conclude from these two readings that Isaiah was saying that Jesus would be that great king. This is the problem: if we are not careful we read what we know of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus back into the Old Testament.

But Rather than delivering a full-blooded theological broadside, perhaps some top tips would help:

  1. If we don't read the creation story very carefully we will misunderstand the whole of the Bible; it's vital that we take the words at face value instead of reading our opinions, or those of Christian theologians, back into the story.
  2. The Book of Deuteronomy is not dull but is fascinating, setting out a code of social and economic justice more radical than anything we managed until the 1910 Budget.
  3. The prophets weren't crystal ball gazers, they were anti establishment figures who would make Jeremy Corbin look like a conservative; they were the kind of people no Churchwarden would let in here.
  4. The Book of Jonah is one of the funniest stories you'll ever read but its central point is that God will have his own way.
  5. The poetry in the Psalms is exquisite and often very concentrated and it is best to find a few different translations before sitting down to enjoy them.
  6. Translators of the Hebrew into English have systematically removed all the explicitly erotic passages from the Song of Solomon which the Church has tried to mislead us into believing is some kind of allegory; and here's another lesson: the Western Church is terribly frightened by the power of sexual desire but the Chosen people were not.
  7. And here's the big one: Jesus wasn't a fluffy-brained holy man who just went around patting children on the head, he was even more socio-economically radical than Deuteronomy and the Prophets. He didn't get killed for praying but for directly challenging the power structure of Temple, King and Empire.
  8. The Greek of Saint Paul is sometimes incoherent; he is frequently ambiguous and often contradictory; but who would not be, consumed by an overpowering love of Jesus and the need to make sense of him in a rapidly changing world. on this basis, Paul is massively suggestive but not infallible, even if you can safely know what he means.
  9. We're not the only people who don't understand the Book of Revelation.

And, finally

  1. Although some people say that we should take the Bible literally as the Word of God, it wasn't written in English; we read translations which often have to guess at the meaning of words which long since fell out of use; so be careful.

From this I want to make five general points:

But don't take my word for it; don't believe a single word I've said until you have put in the hours. One of the great gifts to the Western Church of the Reformation was its belief that each of us should read the Bible individually in our homes as well as collectively in church. There will be many events in the coming year to help us all to know our Bibles better.