Performing the Bible

Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison preached at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, March 10th 2019, On the day new church Bibles were received by the congregation

(Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13)

One Sunday morning in 1997, I sat down in front of the television to watch the final of the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament: Fiji versus South Africa. The experts’ view before the match, later confirmed by the final score, was that this was an outstanding Fijian team; South Africa had no chance.

The match commentator drew our attention to the Fijian team shirts, each emblazoned with “4:13”. “It’s from the Bible”, he said: “‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength.’” Then he added confidently, “It’s chapter four, verse thirteen of the Book of Philistines.”

As some of us already know, there is no biblical Book of Philistines. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, does contain the verse, ‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength.’ In the Old Testament, the “Philistines”, were a people frequently at war with the Israelites. The most famous of them was Goliath, who found himself surprisingly overmatched in a fight with the vertically challenged shepherd boy, and future King, David.

Outside of a church, fewer and fewer people will laugh at mention of the Book of Philistines. To see the funny side, you need to know your Bible, enough to recognise when a book is not in it, and to know the story of David and Goliath. Does that matter? Will God bar you from heaven if you can’t recite from memory the titles of all sixty-six biblical books? No, of course, not, but the less we know and use our Bibles, the poorer we are for it. Today’s readings from the Bible – from Saint Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, and Saint Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness – help us to see why that is so.

In our reading from Luke 4, where Jesus faces temptations about his future path, and Romans 8, where Paul ponders upon what it means for God to offer to salvation to all people, we find Jesus and Paul – and the Devil! – reading scripture, interpreting it, and applying it to important situations in life. There are lessons we can learn through reading about how they read the Bible and apply it, though maybe not so much so from how the Devil does so! We read the Bible, we interpret it, and we can use these interpretations to help us make important decisions in life.

Jesus read his Bible. He is only once pictured doing so; in his home town synagogue, and his interpretation of the prophet Isaiah was not well received. But Jesus did read his Bible; the Hebrew Scriptures of his day; what we Christians call the Old Testament. We know Jesus must have read his Bible thoroughly because he was able to recall what it said, and then apply that in appropriate ways to real situations.

Jesus is in the wilderness. He is famished. And there is a whisper in his ear, saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ (4:3) You know, the way God provided bread in the wilderness for your fellow Jews. It’s in the Book of Exodus. And Jesus answers, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone’.” (4:4) It says so in Deuteronomy 8:3!

‘And in an instant,’ Jesus is given a vision of ‘all the kingdoms of the world.’ (4:5) And the voice in the ear says, ‘if you worship me … it will all be yours.’ (4:6) And Jesus answers, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ (4:8) It says so in Deuteronomy 6:14, and in the second and third commandments in Exodus 20:3-4!

Two can play at this game. Now the voice in Jesus’s ear is quoting scripture: ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here [this pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple], for it is written [in Psalm 91:11-12] “he will command his angels concerning you to protect you. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ (4:9-11)

And Jesus answers, ‘It is said,’ in Deuteronomy 6:16, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (4:12) And with that, Luke tells us, ‘the devil had finished every test, [and] he departed from him until an opportune time.’ (4:13) Phew!

Food provision, exercising power in the world’s political systems, understanding how our Maker relates to us and we to our Maker: you can’t get anything more basic in life than that. Understanding and addressing them, for inspiration and guidance, again and again Jesus turns to what he has read in the Bible. And Jesus’s follower, the Apostle Paul, does the same when confronted with a life and death issue: for whom is God’s salvation available?

Paul reaches back into the Hebrew Scriptures, like Jesus had done, to declare a message of hope: ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,’ (10:8) – Deuteronomy 30:14. Paul lets those in Rome know that he is reading his Bible, declaring, ‘Scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame”,’ (10:11); so citing the prophet Isaiah (28:16).

Paul is happy to take Old Testament statements and promises about God and apply them specifically to Jesus: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ (10:10) And, you know, that promise from God is available to everyone, says Paul, signing off words from the Israelite prophet Joel, about God’s work in the world: ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (10:13)

To be blunt, if it’s good enough for Paul, if it’s good enough for Jesus to spend time reading their bibles, then it’s good enough for us too. Many of us, struggle to do so; at least as much as we think we should. That doesn’t disqualify us from God’s love or from being part of the Church. As Paul reminds us, this God is, ‘Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.’ (10:12) And that’s true whether we last read our Bible, yesterday, last week, last month, or on some earlier date we might struggle to identify.

Did you know, I can play the piano? I have my grade 1 piano certificate to prove it. To tell the truth, my mother had my grade 1 certificate, and I’m not entirely sure what happened to it. A combination of lack of talent and preference for evening television put an end to all of that at the age of thirteen. Nowadays, I can see where the notes go up and down, where they last longer, and I can pick out a simple tune with my right hand, especially it it’s in the key of C. For everything else musical today, the good news that we are in the excellent hands of our organist, Paul, and not in mine … especially my left hand.

Who knows how things might have been if I had just kept up my piano playing? I would never have been a professional, or even above average, but there are many times since when it would have been useful, and I might also have got a lot of enjoyment out of it. Which brings me back to reading our Bibles. How many of us, I wonder, have done with Bible reading what I did with piano playing? How many of us radically reduced the amount of Bible reading we do, perhaps even at quite a young age, and quite some time ago?

Maybe we felt that we had gained the necessary amount of information (our grade one bible reading certificate) to suffice for future days. But the Bible, so to speak, is something that we perform. First, there’s the content; the words and the stories; the equivalent of musical notes, keys, and stave. If we lose the habit of reading them we can’t perform them as well because we struggle to remember them! That’s why I would recommend little and often to keep in good shape. If it helps, make use one of the many Bible reading aids or schemes that are widely available. For example, some might want to try the United Reformed Church’s Daily Devotions series; a bible reading, a short reflection, and a shorter prayer; available to subscribe to as a daily email to your inbox, or available every day on our church website; details about these are printed on today’s Link service sheet.

Second, though, there’s the matter of interpretation; it ain’t just what you play, it’s the way that you play it. Even the devil, it is said, can quote scripture; a generally recognised proverb, though fewer people now know that it was inspired by the events described in today’s Gospel reading. It ain’t just what you read in the Bible but the way that you read it.

Look at that conversation between Jesus and the devil– and it doesn’t really matter here whether you see ‘the devil’ as an individual being, external to ourselves, in conflict with God, or as a negative quality or force within each one of us, at war with what God calls us to be. Is it true that scripture says that ‘God will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ as the devil tells Jesus, when he invites him to jump, and so force God to act at his command, to keep him safe? Yes, it’s true. Jesus knows that’s true, as do we, because he and we have read those words in Psalm 91. Should they be interpreted to mean that we can take dangerous action to force God to do something good for our benefit? Of course not!

That’s a bad interpretation of something that’s in the Bible and Jesus knows it. He knows his bible well enough, so that when he’s confronted with a temptation, supposedly backed up by the Bible, he can use the Bible to show why this can’t be the right way to read Psalm 91: ‘Do not put your God to the test’. When you read Psalm 91 in the light of Deuteronomy 6:16, and then you will recognise a devilishly bad interpretation when you are presented with it.

So, it’s good for us to read our bibles, and when we read our bibles we are always interpreting what we read. Different people can take different meanings from the same biblical text. The same person can find a new meaning in the same text when they return to it; because the circumstances have changed in which they read, so does their interpretation. Interpreting the bible isn’t easy … though getting the opportunity to do so is a gift that offers great benefits.

Here’s a quick interpretative example from today’s Gospel reading; things which I have been reminded of or have just thought about concerning today’s world. It’s wrong to use food – bread – or some other precious commodity to get people to do something that we want them to do; a warning for churches to think carefully about how evangelism should or should not be linked with acts of service. In politics, you can’t do good unless you get into power, but will you ever do much good if you gain power through unjust means? In religion, “going forward in faith” cannot mean acting rashly, hoping that God will bale us out if things go wrong.

That’s just the tip of a biblical iceberg. There’s much more to discover as you go deeper. To live life well in today’s world; like Jesus, like his followers such as Paul, it helps to read and interpret our bibles. So, for the gift of Holy Scripture: histories, psalms and prophets; Gospels about Jesus and letters from his followers; God, we give you thanks. May we use them well. Amen.

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