Psalm 119:129-136, Isaiah 45:22-end, Romans 15:1-6, Luke 4: 16-24
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope”. Words from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Today is Bible Sunday, a day in the year when we especially give thought and reflect on the importance and meaning of what we know today as ‘The Holy Bible’. For us it usually comes in the form of a book, though for many today it may be online or in another digital form. With estimated sales of well over 5 Billion it has been the best selling book of all time, still selling around a 100 million copies annually. The Times newspaper once said the Bible “has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment and culture than any book ever written”. Yet in many households it possibly also collects more dust than any other book on the shelf.
If we were able to ask the early Christians, who followed the teachings of Jesus, what the Bible was, they would not have known. For Jewish Christians of the 1st Century the Bible as we know it today simply did not exist. Scripture did exist, and the scrolls, on which it was written, were regularly read publicly, as we heard in our Gospel reading from Luke, when the Scripture, the Word of God as written by the prophet Isaiah, was read to those present in the synagogue by the son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.
Today being Bible Sunday, it would seem appropriate to talk a little about the Bible. ‘East Enders’, ‘Coronation Street’, and ‘Emmerdale’ all rolled into one, a wealth of stories for all and every occasion. Now we come to the end of the period in the Church Lectionary, started after Trinity Sunday, way back on 12th June, and the end of our readings and study of Luke’s Gospel that started in December last year. We are about to enter November, a month very much of Remembrance, before moving into Advent and, of course, Christmas. So it is good to take a moment to reflect on ‘the word of God’, as it comes to us in the Holy Bible.
The Bible is a collection of books, 39 in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, as we know it, and 27 books in the New Testament. There is also the Apocrypha, another set of books that are not regularly included in the Christian canon, although the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches use parts of it. I am sure that we all have at least one, if not more copies of the Bible on our book shelves, I believe we now have only 6 since we ‘downsized‘. Its influence on world history is unparalleled, and shows no signs of abating. Available today in over 900 languages, it is widely considered to be the most influential and best selling book of all time; and today can be found as I mentioned on your computer, tablet or phone.
If we were able to ask those early Christians, whom Paul was writing to in Rome, what the Bible was, they again would not have known. The contents of the New Testament was argued about for years and consensus only came together at the end of the 4th century, and in fact further deliberation came in the 16th century when a decision was finally made on the New Testament Canon as we generally know it today.
Biblical Scholarship, particularly since the 19th century onwards, has opened the pages of scripture even further, and new ancient texts, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been discovered bringing fresh understanding to texts many believed to be ‘set in stone’. As it is written in the letter to the Hebrews: “...the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.
The Bible has forever been a text formulated and interpreted by countless believers in countless situations. Yet it can be a lifeless thing without the people who read it and live through it, you and I. Then, indeed, the Bible does indeed become living and active. I believe that there is much to be recommended in reading both the Old Testament and the New Testament, not least, in my opinion to gain a better understanding of the history of the Middle East that has led to the many conflicts existing in that area throughout time, as well as today.
Christianity has over the centuries taken much of the Bible and used it as seen fit within our changing structures of Service and Liturgy. The God of the Old Testament is indeed the same God as that of the New Testament: the God of the Jews, the God of Islam, and the same God as our own. The Bible tells the story of how and why that God was, and still remains, that same God, now to us, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the God who came to us as Jesus Christ, the Messiah, and as he told his listeners in the Gospel reading today, fulfilled the scripture as written in Isaiah.
The Bible is the most sold book in the world, but is so often the one left unopened on the bookshelf. The Bible without a believer is empty, and it is down to us all to live out that sacred text in our everyday lives. As someone once wrote, “Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.” Amen