Sunday 23



2 Timothy 3:14-17
Luke 4:16-24

Today is Bible Sunday, and this morning I want to offer some thoughts on how we read and interpret the Bible.  I’d like to begin by telling you what some children remembered from their Bibles:    "Moses led the Hebrews to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread without any ingredients."   "Our Father in Heaven, Harold be thy name…"    "The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery."    "Jesus enunciated the Golden Rule, which says to do one to others before they do one to you."

Where the children can’t quite remember, they make it up, and they tend to make it up in their favour.  Of course we grown-ups wouldn't make such errors - or would we?  I’m fascinated by the biblical phrases that have found their way into our language?  Like "the sun shines on the righteous" where we conveniently miss out the evil people? (Matthew 5:45 ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good’).  We find it difficult to accept that God would make the sun shone on evil people.  Or how about this one "Money is the root of all evil"? (1 Timothy 6:10 ‘the love of money is a root of all … evil’), we want to make money the problem, not our love of it.  OK so perhaps we might just turn the meaning around to make it less uncomfortable for us.

One problem in our present analytical and scientific age is we often regard the bible as a textbook, the source of ultimate factual Truth, and we use it to find answers to our questions.  That’s not a bad way to look at the bible, but we must recognise it has limitations.  First, because even before we look, we know the answers we'd like to find.  Second there is a risk we might do this to gain the authority of Being Right and score points over someone else.  And thirdly, it's becoming clear to me that the bible does not give categorical answers to many of the big questions we are asking.  You will not find a rational explanation of why God allows suffering? what happens after we die? why are we here? or whether it’s right to have women bishops?  The bible is not a Holy encyclopaedia (but that’s the narrow assumption many people seem to make).  The bible is the story of God’s relationship with His people, and you can’t adequately describe relationship in logical terms. It’s a story of support, encouragement and of guidance and yes, discipline.  Sometimes we must put aside our questions and preconceived ideas, just read the bible, and let it (God) speak to us.  

This is not the Word of God. But [open the bible] this is the Word of God”. The word of God only comes alive when we read the bible and begin to interpret what it means.  And to do that well, we need to be careful and attentive.  To use more spiritual language we need to read the bible in a contemplative and prayerful way.  That means being prepared to hear what we don't want to hear.

In our gospel reading this is where the congregation in the synagogue at Nazareth finds themselves.  Jesus is actually reading God's manifesto for the world. Starts off well, giving good news to the poor (we'd all like that), releasing the oppressed (good because Roman occupation was crippling), sight for the blind (no-one can argue with that), not so sure about setting prisoners free, but then declaring the year of the Lord’s favour - that's going too far!  The crowd then start to reject Jesus, and find reasons to doubt him.

You may know that’s the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) every 50 years involved freeing your slaves, cancelling debts, returning land to its original owners. That’s a message of freedom, but it was unwelcome then, and it’s just as unpopular today!

You may remember the Jubilee 2000 ‘Drop the Debt’ campaign, which took this biblical concept and applied it to the relief of crippling national debts of poor countries. It had much success but also many setbacks. Another less well-known initiative was in Cornwall, where the Bishop of Truro declared an amnesty over parish share. Those who had fallen behind in their payments had their debt cancelled. But an act of grace caused a lot of upset. Many were quite put out that those who paid in full had subsidised those who had not.

We need to look beyond our own situation and see that God cares for all his people – our God is a God of supreme justice, even though we often can’t see it.  The year of Jubilee was God’s social justice law for the good of the whole community. It might not have been popular, but every 50 years it stopped the rich getting too rich and prevented the poor becoming too poor.  Considering our current banking system and the financial crisis that we are currently facing, you have to say there’s a message there for us today.

So, how can we read the bible and increase our chances of hearing God’s word without distorting our interpretation?  Here’s just one pointer, from our epistle this morning.  Paul says to Timothy ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.’ Timothy learned his strong faith not just by reading scripture, but from people – in particular his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (2 Tim 1:5).

We learn anything (not just faith) best from people we know, people we can trust because we’ve seen enough of them to know they are sound, wise people – and they care about us.  

You will know the people who taught you best, and I hope you have been blessed to know one or two who have helped you learn your faith.  For myself I can name three examples: Miss Lodge, one of my primary teacher who taught me how to write at school.  Bill Hassall, who encouraged me in my vocation to be a lay minister and priest.  My parents who taught me how to pray as a child.  And for each of these great teachers it’s not what they said to me as much as who they were as people.  Miss Lodge showed me by example how to form the letters.  I got the habit of praying because my parents prayed with us every night before bedtime.

Such people always offer encouragement and those who really care for us also correct us and guide us.  You might say these people will hold a mirror up to us – we all need people who will sensitively and prayerfully reveal our true selves to us.

So, to finish, I offer you two questions: at least one of them will be relevant to you, maybe both.

Firstly - Who can you learn faithful life from?  Who are the people in your life who cannot just tell you, but show you how to live a life of faith by example?

Secondly - Who are you able to show faith to?  Because in the end, this is how our faith spreads – not by sermons, nor fine words, but by being Christ to others.

Between them, these two questions go to the heart of what we should be as a church.  Yes, we must read our bibles often and prayerfully, but between our two congregations, we need to be able to learn faithful living from each other.  Amen.



EVENING PRAYER                           PREACHER  -  REV LYNN MCKEON

2 Timothy 2: 1-7
Matthew 22: 34-46

The Ten Commandments represent God’s own summary of our duties toward Him.  How valuable to have God lay out His instructions in a space of only 17 verses.  But how difficult it proves to obey them, when our hearts have gone astray!

When at a training residential a few weeks ago, we looked at how we can sometimes struggle with what it means to obey God and follow him.  One of the discussion group I was in described how in his early days as a Christian, he went from one extreme to another.  For a while he devoted himself fanatically to obeying commandments. But he became stiff and artificial in his obedience.  He said that folk must have wondered whether there was a real person behind the appearance. On top of it all, He was miserable.  He came to his senses only when a fellow Christian reminded him of God’s love.  God’s grace to him did not depend on his scrupulosity, but on his forgiveness and on the fact that he accepted him through Jesus Christ.  How could he have forgotten such a basic truth?!

So he went to the other extreme. Feeling himself free because of God’s love, he decided to do what he wanted, regardless of what anyone thought.  But then he realised that he was hurting other people by not showing consideration for them. He took stock.  Neither of the two ways worked.  Neither way had really honoured God.  So what was the answer? He decided that he had to follow Christ and have personal communion with him, without having a simple formula.

From our gospel reading this evening, one of the Pharisees tested Jesus with a question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV).

The Pharisees prided themselves on meticulous observance of the Law. They not only knew the Ten Commandments, but they paid rigorous attention to all the laws in the books of Moses – 613 laws, according to a traditional count. They tried to reason out the implications of the laws, and to make sure that they avoided even the possibility of violating any of them.

But the Pharisees had lost sight of the very heart of the matter - loving God Without love for God, the external observance of the commandments becomes an empty form.  In another place Jesus specifically warned of the danger: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26 NIV).

Loving God means receiving cleansing inside first.  Only in this way is our obedience genuine.  Otherwise, even though we may appear to others to be righteous, our obedience is corrupted by bad motives.

God himself gave us the central commandment to love God, along with the other commandments (Deuteronomy 6:1-25).  This central command helps to define the spirit in which we must keep all the other commandments.  If we are not ardently following this one command, we are not really keeping any of the others either.

The example of the Pharisees shows that when we fail to be in communion with God personally, and to love him fervently, we also become prone to misinterpret the Bible.  Jesus bluntly told the Sadducees that they misinterpreted Scripture: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 RSV).  Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the scribes because they transgressed the Commandments of God for the sake of their traditions (Matthew 15:3).

What then does Jesus say?  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37 NIV).  Heart and soul and mind are not three distinct small pieces of ourselves that we may offer. They all point to what we really are.  The Bible indicates that our heart is central: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.  For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 NIV).  Everything we are and have, beginning with our inmost commitments and all our thoughts, we must devote to loving, adoring, and serving God.

Jesus then said, that “to love God is the first and greatest commandment” It is first and greatest in that it represents the heart-beat of all the commandments. Note that it is the first Commandment, but not the only one. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 RSV).  That is, if we truly love God, we will keep all the other commandments as well as this greatest one.

Today we also need this reminder about obeying all the commandments of God. Some people today understand “love” as merely a happy feeling of friendliness or good will.  They think that, provided they feel good about the idea of God, they may do as they please.  Indeed, an approach called “situation ethics” has claimed that love replaced all the commandments.  But that is not a Biblical conception of loving God. Love does not replace Commandments. Love gives us the right motive so that we genuinely can obey the Commandments.

This is true even on a human level.  What would a mother think if her eight-year-old boy is constantly saying that he loves her, but then disobeys, back-talks, and never helps out?  In First John we read, “Let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18 NIV).

Really  loving  God  means  honouring  Him,  revering  Him,  and  paying close attention to His desires as expressed in the Bible.  And not only are we to pay attention, but we are to obey.  The Bible warns, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says” (James 1:22 NIV).

What wise direction Jesus gives! On the one side, Jesus directs us beyond legalism by starting with the central issue of our communion with God.  Are we really devoted to God or to ourselves? 

On the other side, he leads us beyond an irresponsible idea of freedom by indicating that God does really expect us to obey him, not just have good feelings or wishes.  God wants us to please Him by following the ways He has revealed, not by making up our own ways and calling them religious.

Jesus added something more to the greatest Commandment: “The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself'”. In First John the connection is explicit: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.  And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother”

Loving God empowers us to love other people. The Commandments not to murder, and not to steal are not just about refraining from evil.  When seen in the light of the fundamental principle of loving others, they imply that we should look for positive ways to enhance the life and prosperity of our neighbours.  The focus on love helps us not to settle for a minimum concern for neighbours, but to reach out to them. Love helps us to understand the real thrust of the commandments, and to give us concern for actual obeying, not merely listening.

When we read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), we begin to see some of the deep implications of God’s commandments, and we need to ask ourselves, “Who can do all this?”  “How can I measure up to a standard that asks for perfect motivations as well as full outward obedience?

You and I do not measure up.  But there is One who does.  We read in First John, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NASB).

Jesus loved us perfectly and gave himself for us. He saved us when none of us could save ourselves. And now, when we put our trust in him, we are united to him, and we are transformed so that we can imitate the pattern of his love: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. Through Jesus Christ we receive not only understanding of God’s will, but power and motivation to serve Him.  In receiving His love, we can, in turn, love others.


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