According to one survey, the Bible has sold more than 6 billion copies in more than 2,000 languages and dialects. Whatever the precise figure, the Bible is by far the bestselling book of all time.
On the other hand, the Bible is also the least read book in the world! Very few Bibles ever get opened. They are often given as gifts. But, unfortunately, they often remain as pristine as the day they are given.
Why is this? There’s a number of reasons. Sometimes the translations of the Bible are just too difficult, too archaic for modern minds to grasp. Other people find that they do try to start reading the Bible. But they soon get lost in a sea of numbers and laws.
Others, having skipped the laws, find themselves in the Psalms, or in the Prophets...and there they quickly find their attention wandering. For such writings come to us from a very different mind-set and culture. And so, frustrated (and perhaps feeling a little guilty) people lay aside their Bible, and reach for a novel instead! We find that we have a whole generation of Christians, in churches all over the world, who have been told time and again to read their bibles...but who find that they just can't do it.
In my experience, if that’s YOU, you will undoubtedly be a good Christian. You will be someone who tries to follow Jesus every day. You will be someone who worships your Creator, loves their neighbour, and who gives generously to the work of God. And yet, you will be carrying around this weight of guilt that you never actually open your Bible.
So, how am I to respond to this fact? How would you expect me to react? Perhaps I should pull myself up to my full height and call you all 'Sinners!'?
Hmm...I'm not sure that would help very much, would it? Because, actually, if you are one of those who finds the Bible difficult to read...I agree with you! The Bible is not a novel. It's not a newspaper. Some people have described the Bible as 'the Maker's Instructions'. But for many, it’s the kind of instructions which come from the Far East, translated by someone who learned their English in primary school...like this bit of helpful instruction from a computer hard-drive I recently purchased: "More simple under USB interface, it only can do until the 3rd step and deleted is present channel”. And let’s be honest – that’s how some of us hear the Bible. I know – I watch those eyes glazing over!
But the Bible is not an instruction manual. Neither is it a well-planned novel from a single writer, who sets out to tell a story. Instead, it is a collection of writings, 66 letters and books, assembled over a period of about 1,600 years. (The word Bible itself means ‘library’). It contains legal codes, songs and poetry, prophecy, myths, history, stories and some pretty complex theology. Sometimes these different genres are separate. Sometimes they are all woven into just one of the books! (The gospels are a good example of this.)
So does all this mean that we don't need to bother with the hard work of reading the Bible? No. It doesn't. One of the things that the Protestant Reformation gave us, was access to the precious pages of Scripture for ourselves. With that access comes the chance to grow daily in our understanding of God. But unlike a Catherine Cookson or a Jeffrey Archer, reading the Bible is the work of a lifetime. Its beauty, and its huge complexity, takes a lifetime of learning to even begin to master.
But, the church Fathers of old were right about one thing. They knew that, unless properly understood, the Bible can be so easily mis-used and manipulated. That's why the quote "you shall not suffer a witch to live" was used so mercilessly throughout the Middle Ages. It's why the letter to Philemon was used for so long as a justification for slavery. It’s why the letters of St Paul are still used to silence women’s voices in some church leadership circles, and to denigrate people of minority gender identities or sexual orientations. It is too easy for unthinking people to take a line or phrase from one of the Bible’s many competing voices to justify their personal biases and prejudices.
The underlying problem is that in some very loud quarters of the church, the Library of books, stories, myths, laws, poems and theology we have inherited has gained a status which it does not claim for itself. Some of the loudest voices declare that the ‘Library’ is ‘the Word of God’…as if God had personally written down his thoughts for us, as fully- formed instructions for us to follow slavishly.
Well…I might be about to shock you now. My view (with which you are free to disagree and argue) is that we should be very careful about treating the Bible as the Word of God. Rather, it is a collection of writings – Scriptures - which point us towards the actual Word of God – the Logos of God – which is Jesus Christ. That’s why, in our services, after a reading from the Bible, we say ‘For the Word of the Lord’ – rather than ‘This is the Word of the Lord’ – as most churches still do.
It’s a subtle distinction – and some of you may not have picked it up. But by saying ‘For the Word of the Lord’, we give thanks for those parts of the Scriptures which DO point us to the reality and the truth of God. But we also give ourselves permission to understand that some of the Scriptures we have inherited simply do not contain such truth. Rather, they are an echo and a reflection of a time when our spiritual ancestors were reaching out of their bronze and iron-age ignorance - towards the very idea of a Divine Being at the heart of all things.
Along the way, they made some terrible mistakes – which we can read about in the Scriptures. They murdered and pillaged in the name of their God, led on by leaders who told them that such was God’s will and instruction. They conquered the land of other tribes. They kept slaves and subjugated women. They allowed religious ideas to be SO sacrosanct that even children could be stoned at the city gates for blasphemy. They were contemptuous of foreigners, and miserly towards the poor. None of these things are the Word of the Lord – they are only a record of humanity’s faltering quest for him – the actual Word of God.
For it is in Jesus Christ that the Scriptures find their target, and their fulfilment. In the life and teaching of that one perfect human-being who was God among us, we find the inspiration and the focus of the whole Library we call The Bible. He is both the author and the perfector of our faith – the first and the last. He inspired the writers of the Bible to seek for him through its pages, like a mountainside inspires a painter. And through his teachings, his life, his death and his ongoing inspiration – he leads us ever onwards to the sun-lit uplands of our Faith. Amen.
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