Things We Can Get Wrong about Scripture: notes for a sermon at St Olave’s, Exeter.
Epiphany 3. For the OT Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; for the Psalm 19; for the Gospel Luke 4.14-21
Our readings today continue the Epiphany theme—that is, the theme of Manifestation, of God’s self-revelation. Three things one quite often hears said about Christian revelation. Two are defending it.
The first is this “Christian revelation is through the Bible and only through the Bible.” The Latin tag “sola scriptura”—“Scripture alone”— is often quoted here.
The second is, “Bible teaching is plain and straightforward, and we should just do what it says.”
The third saying is actually anti-Christian, and it’s this: “Jesus can’t have been the promised Messiah of Israel, because the promised age of peace and joy that he promised has not come about.”
The three statements have one thing in common, and it’s this. They are all wrong. Or, to be more precise, they are all based on mistaken assumptions. And as it happens, our three readings this morning each contradicts one of them.
First, that “Christian revelation is through the Bible, and only through the Bible.” The Bible itself tells us that this isn’t true—and nowhere more clearly than in the magnificent opening to this morning’s psalm that we just read together—Psalm 19. What does the psalmist say?
The heavens are telling the glory of God ♦
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
—wonderfully paraphrased by Joseph Addison in a hymn I used to enjoy singing when I was at school—#267 in the New English Hymnal! Perhaps some of you remember it:
The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue Ethereal Sky,
And spangled Heav’ns, a Shining Frame,
Their great Original proclaim…
And utter forth a glorious Voice,
For ever singing, as they shine,
The Hand that made us is Divine.
What then is meant by the tag “sola scriptura”—“Scripture alone”? What those who formulated that phrase were saying was that Scripture alone gives us all that is necessary for our salvation: in particular the saving truths of our Lord’s life, death and resurrection. But God in Divine generosity always offers us more than merely what is necessary. God gives us what the ancients called copia—abundance and superabundance, overflowing, and if only we will pay attention the Divine calls to us in the whole created order. The Psalmist and Addison pointed to the heavens. Dante saw it in a girl’s smile. Someone else see it in a flower, or in hearing a piece of music—but we could go on for ever—and one day, please God, we will.
Second, someone will tell us that, “Bible teaching is plain and straightforward, and we should just do what it says.” Well—is it? In some ways this assertion is more dangerous that the last one, because it contains a half-truth. Certainly there are some elements in Scripture that are plain and straightforward. Most obviously, all Scripture presents us with a view of reality that says our lives and all lives are based in the one God, who is faithful and just: according to Scripture, if we insist on any other view, we are rebels against the truth. I suppose Scripture is pretty clear about how we should live those lives, too. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” is said or implied everywhere. The two are expanded a little and run together in the prophet Micah’s beautiful,
“He has shown you… what is good: and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6.8)
But there are also many things in Scripture that are not at all plain and straightforward. An uncle of mine used to say, “You can prove anything and everything from the Bible”, and although I think he exaggerated, he had a point. What, after all, should be the people of God’s attitude to those who are not members? If you read God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis and then Moses’ command to the Israelites as they enter the promised land, you could be forgiven for thinking they imply completely opposite things. SO, how shall you decide what are you to believe, or perhaps more importantly in this particular case, what to do? How are you to treat outsiders to the Christian faith?
That’s where our second reading comes in, from Nehemiah. It’s a dramatic scene: some people call it “the founding of Judaism”. The people have returned from exile in Babylon, and in an act of repentance and dedication after their past failing, they listen publicly to the entire “book of the Law”—I imagine we should take it to mean what we call the Pentateuch—the five books of Moses—being read from early morning to midday. It must have been quite an endurance test. But there’s something else about them. They were read to, says Nehemiah, “with interpretation”—“מְפֹרָשׁ” as the Hebrew has it—and goes on to explain what this means: “and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading”. In other words, Nehemiah reminds us that although the basic ideas of Scripture may be clear, there’s much about it that is difficult and or confusing. Scripture needs interpretation. And incidentally, lest there be any doubt, apropos the particular question I just instanced–how are we to treat outsiders?–I’d say that it becomes pretty clear on careful reading of Scripture as a whole that the dominant message is not so much to worry about “Who is my neighbour?” as to consider how I can BE a neighbour to anyone who comes into my life–as Our Lord reminded the lawyer who asked this very question, and received for an answer the story of the Good Samaritan.
What then of our third frequently heard saying—the anti-Christian one: “Jesus can’t have been the promised Messiah if Israel, because the promised age of peace and joy has not come about.”
This always reminds me of a time I was feeling very sorry for myself: you know, one of those days when you feel God has completely let you down, even though you’ve been a really good chap, and you wonder why you bother. I was driving, and without thinking much, I switched on the car radio and what did I did hear? The great Lyn Anderson: “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.”
And, of course, God didn’t and Jesus didn’t. Certainly we are promised that finally we shall know the fullness of joy: but our Lord did not come to joy except through the gate and grave of death, and his promise to us is NOT for an immediate era of peace. Quite the contrary. “In the world,” he tells us, according to the fourth evangelist. “You will have tribulation”—adding only “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
And so this morning’s gospel passage. Our Lord reads from the Scripture and declares, “This Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” But what is that scripture? Is it a promise of perfect peace and immediate happiness for all? By no means: it is a promise of signs by which we may know that God is at work even in the midst of darkness, even in the valley of shadow:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
That is what Jesus did, that is what men and women experienced in him, that is what was vindicated in his resurrection from the dead, and for that the Spirit of God was given to the church. Alas, the church, as we know too well, has not been and is not always faithful to that vision, and neither, of course, are we as individual Christians. Yet it is what the church and we as individuals stand for when we are true to Christ. No, we are not promised a rose garden: we are not promised–yet–the messianic kingdom in its perfection–but we are given the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, and the promise that not one single effort we make to be faithful to that call, not one single tear we shed for the sake of it, shall be lost or wasted. As our Lord himself said on one occasion:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10.29-31)