What the Bible means to me
Second Sunday in Advent, 9th December 2001
I would first like to say thank you to Andrew and Eileen for the opportunity of talking to you, though it seems a little more daunting now than it did some months ago. Being up here is a strange mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. I hope not to detain you long.
Let me say briefly what I am not going to talk about. I am not going to discuss ‘What the bible is’ or ‘What the bible means’ - rather ‘What the bible means to me’. It will be my personal response to what I have read and pondered therein.
As preaching is not something I am used to, and as I suspect this may well be a unique occasion, I have decided to adopt that tried and tested format: the three point sermon.
So let me begin. My first point: the bible is holy. Now you may consider this to be rather obvious. Is it not the Holy Bible? It is, it is. But I regard it as holy because it raises us beyond the detail of our everyday needs and desires and it infuses us with new perspectives.
It lifts us beyond our sensual selves. It tells us that life’s essence is to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It sets us apart for sacred use by pulling us up short on our selfishness and challenging us to look to all creation. There is the moral code of Moses, the prophetic insight of Isaiah, the pointedness of the parables, the ardour of the Apostle; each one pointing us beyond ourselves to greater depths of life.
The bible shows us that life has more dimensions than we might immediately see or feel. It reminds us that there was a time before we were born and there will be a time after we die. There is a spiritual dimension whose wealth we can barely comprehend and it can often bear little relation to our human values. We are called without exception to peace and wisdom. And there is a loving presence underlying it all that is called Yahweh, the Lord, the Word, Father, Abba.
The bible then is holy. It directs us away from ourselves. But it does so by grounding itself in the stories and experiences of fellow humans. This is not so much a book of God’s exploits but how humankind has coped with God. Thus point two: the bible is human.
Its characters are not heroes of unalloyed purity. Here in this place, where we hear much of St Peter, do we know that. In the garden of Eden Adam blames Eve who blames the serpent. Jacob tricks his way to his inheritance. King David has the husband of the woman he fancies done away with. The disciples have an argument over who is to sit at the right hand of Jesus. And Paul, the famous letter writer, the so-called ‘First Christian’, spent a fair portion of his life terrorising and being party to executions of the early believers.
It’s as if the various authors instinctively knew that the holiness of their writing would be made more credible, more accessible, if contrasted with the fumblings, misunderstandings, vanities of our fellow humans.
In the gospel of Mark, probably the earliest, we see examples where the humanity of Jesus is portrayed in a fashion which is often at odds with our received wisdom of what the Son of God should be like. He appeared to say that his parables were deliberately opaque so that people at large could not understand the truth. He was at pains that those he healed should not tell the world of what he had done. The Gentile woman who asked for help was told that the children should be fed first, rather than the dogs. The man could be awkward.
I think that Mark, possibly writing down the recollections of Peter, wanted to portray the human side of Jesus as honestly as he could. He understood that representing the whole person spoke of the deeper fabric of the kingdom of God. And if that also included our patron saint being portrayed as somewhat dim and weak we can assume that that he was happy enough to go along with that.
The bible then is holy; it puts us into a deeper, spiritual context. It is human; it is not afraid to say we are flawed, unpredictable but that God’s story can be told through us. Thirdly I had wanted to say that it is Art but feeling the need for three point alliteration I would rather say that it has heart.
For great art has great heart. I know when I have witnessed art in its fullness; it changes the way I see the world. A song marrying great insight with the power of a memorable tune sends me singing into a greater appreciation. A visual work of art can change the way you look at its subject forever. A film can have you reliving its scenes for days afterwards, as you realise it has caught a basic truth.
The bible has this great heart. There are in its pages great works of art. If we were asked for our favourite passage where we would start? The 23rd Psalm? Paul’s poem to love in 1 Corinthians? The longing for liberation in Isaiah? The Beatitudes?
These are not just exhibits to be marvelled at and then put away. The 23rd psalm is beautiful but how many have fortified themselves with the words, ‘Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil’. As a would-be poet I am awestruck: “the valley of the shadow of death”. The human condition, in a few words, but lending us its strength as we find resonance in its words.
Isaiah’s suffering servant is an astonishing description of a universal victim, a human stripped of all that we would regard as dignity, degraded, done to death, yet in the end vindicated. This vivid word picture is all we need to know about the triumph of self giving and to prepare ourselves for it.
The Old Testament storytelling honed by generations of the oral tradition still enwraps us today: see how popular The Technicolor Dreamcoat still is. ‘Turn the other cheek’, ‘Light under a bushel’, ‘Salt of the earth’ are all from one chapter of one gospel but are still in general parlance.
This is the holy and the human meeting at the hands of great storytellers, poets and lyricists. Encounters with God made accessible in metaphors that add depth to our own encounters. God in word in us in word in God.
This is what the bible means to me. This is not all that the bible means to me. It can also mean bafflement, incredulity, boredom and exasperation. Yet it is a treasure house where you might find in the greyness of dust a gem that will illuminate the rest of your life. There are other books of course. It does not have a copyright on theological insight; but this is the one where the all the great contributors have started. In today’s Gospel Jesus himself quotes from the passage in Isaiah that we heard earlier.
I would like to think that all who have studied its pages have at some level acknowledged the three points I have made today. The bible is holy, the bible is human, the bible has great, great heart. Now read on...