Third Sunday after Epiphany

Trinity, Lincoln–Nehemiah 8:2-10, Luke 4:14-21

One of the universal features of Christian worship is that we read the Bible. On a normal Sunday, lectors read aloud selections from the Old Testament and the New Testament epistles, a deacon or priest reads a portion of the gospels, and the whole congregation recites or sings several verses from one of the Psalms. On other occasions, we read even more of the Bible in a single service: At the Great Vigil of Easter, most communities typically read five quite long Old Testament lessons—up to nine are provided for in the Prayer Book—each of which is followed by a Psalm, and later on we read an epistle and gospel lesson. And those who have the habit of praying the daily office, whether alone or with others, are exposed to another potential 18 passages from the Bible per week, not to mention substantial portions of the Psalms each day, such that all 150 of them are read in their entirety over the course of about seven weeks. So, whatever anybody wants to say about us, they certainly can’t say that we ignore the Bible! We may not always pay attention to what we’re reading, we may not always understand what we’re reading, we may not always live consistently with what we’re reading, but we are a Bible-reading people!

Yet, for all of our Bible reading, I doubt that any of us have ever experienced, or would ever want to experience, anything like the incident described in the eighth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah. It takes place a little more than 500 years before Christ. A community of Jews had recently returned to Jerusalem following two generations of exile several hundred miles away in Babylon. As they were in the process of rebuilding the infrastructure of their civic and religious life, their leader, Ezra, gathered all the people together early one morning by one of the city gates. He called for the Torah—which, for Jews of that time, would have been the entirety of their sacred scriptures—Ezra called for the Torah to be presented to him, after which he mounted a wooden pulpit, and proceeded to read from the Torah.

This took place for several hours—until midday, Nehemiah tells us—during which time all the people—men, women, and children—remained standing, out of respect and deference to what they were hearing. Then, while the people remained in their places, several leaders of the people explained—amplified, illuminated, gave instruction from—what had been read. It was a reading and teaching marathon that makes even the Easter Vigil—which is a lot of scripture at one time by our standards—even the Easter Vigil pales in comparison. Then, I’m glad to say, the people feasted. They ate, drank, and enjoyed one another’s company.

Several hundred years later, Jesus took up a copy of the Hebrew scriptures—by then, including the prophets as well as the Torah—while attending a regular synagogue service. He read from Isaiah, about the servant of the Lord who would restore sight to the blind and proclaim release to those in prison. And then he went on to identify himself with that servant, and thereby launched his public ministry into overdrive Reading the Bible, apparently, is powerful stuff.

So, it seems like an opportune moment today to raise the question, What is the Bible to us? We apparently think enough of it to read from it every time we come to church, and we even stand—just like the people in Ezra’s crowd—for part of it. But what is the Bible to us, or what should it be, at least? I propose to answer that question with four points, which I will make as succinctly as I can.

First, the Bible is a library. It is a collection of 66 (or 80, if you count the Apocrypha) individual documents written over a span of more than a thousand years, some in Hebrew and some in Greek, and by several dozen different human authors, some of whose identities are unknown to us. Most of these documents originated as oral tradition—stories told around the campfire, and the like—which were then written down, and later edited, combined with other written sources, then edited again, before emerging in the form in which we now know them.

These writings represent several different categories and sub-categories of literature, including poetry, legend, history, travelogue, systematic theology, biography, sermon, teaching, practical wisdom, social commentary, prophecy, and apocalyptic vision. Some of it is very stylish, exhibiting great erudition and learning, and some of it is very direct and crude. Some parts appear to contradict other parts. The authors and editors have different agendas, different axes to grind. The Bible is a diverse library of distinctively different documents, and we will never understand it well if we forget that fact.

Second, the Bible is one book, inspired by one Authority. It is the Word of God, and tells us what we need to know about the nature of God, the nature of Man, and the meaning of life. Despite its undeniable diversity, there is a coherent thread of unity which runs through the scriptures from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation. It tells one grand story of God’s creative and loving and redemptive pursuit of the human race. If we indeed fail to properly understand the scriptures if we overlook their diversity, even more so do we fail to understand the scriptures if we overlook their unity. When we treat the Bible as one book, we find that one part interprets another, one part illuminates another, and what appears muddy often becomes clear in the process. It is for good reason that the Bible is generally available as one volume, between the covers of one book, for that is what it is. Jesus is God’s Word spoken, and the Bible is God’s Word written.

Third, the Bible is the Church’s book. The Church existed prior to the Bible—that is, Israel—existed as a people before the scriptures of the Old Testament were written and compiled, and the Church existed and thrived before the scriptures of the New Testament were written and compiled. It was the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that collectively decided which documents should be included in the list of New Testament scriptures, and which should not. Sure, anybody can pick up a Bible off a bookstore or library shelf and read it, cold, and probably benefit from doing so. It contains a great deal of practical teaching on how to live life well, and reveals a great deal about the nature and ways of God. But as sacred scripture, it has no independent life apart from the tradition and teaching authority of the Church. The Bible is our story, our song, our language and vocabulary of faith.

When divorced from the context of the believing community which is itself in continuity with the life and teaching of the Apostles, the Bible can be desperately confusing, and lead to serious distortion of Christian teaching. About 150 years ago, an earnest young Christian named Charles Taze Russell got frustrated with the smorgasbord of Christian denominations that existed even then. He picked up a Bible and determined to base his faith and life solely and completely on what he read there, ignoring anything he had already been taught or otherwise exposed to from the teaching of the churches. He arrived at a theology, and attracted a band of followers who subscribed to that theology. They called themselves . . . Jehovah’s Witnesses. By ignoring the teaching authority and tradition of the Church, Mr Russell ended up founding a cult that teaches doctrines that were defined as heresy as long ago as the fourth century. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had not chosen to ignore the fact that the Bible is the Church’s book. Of course, the Bible also judges the Church, and the Church must submit to the authority of scripture. Yet, scripture cannot be fully known outside the fellowship of the Church.

Fourth, and finally, the Bible is the Holy Spirit’s book. The Bible is inspired, and by that, we mean that God the Holy Spirit dwelt within and worked through those who passed on oral tradition, those who wrote that tradition down, and the final editors of those documents. God the Holy Spirit dwelt within and worked through the councils of the Church which discerned the writings that should be included in the canon of scripture, and the ones that should not. God the Holy Spirit dwells within and works through the people of God throughout succeeding generations in correctly understanding and expounding the word of God. And God the Holy Spirit dwells within and works through each Christian who opens the pages of the Bible in purity of heart. Through the words of scripture, God convicts human hearts of sin, and draws them to His irresistible love. Through the words of scripture, God provides guidance to those who submit their wills to Him in faith. Through the words of scripture, God lifts up and encourages those who are discouraged or sorrowful, and strengthens those who are weak. Through the words of scripture, God enlightens and instructs minds that seek the ‘truth’ by seeking the ‘Truth,’ minds that want to yield to authority by coming to know the Author.

When Ezra and the returned Jewish exiles finished their scripture-reading marathon, though they were doubtless tired physically from all that standing, they were refreshed and renewed spiritually. They had a new sense of identity, a clearer vision of who they were as a people. That’s what the public reading and teaching of scripture does—it forms us as the people of God. And in doing so, it holds us accountable in ways that are not always comfortable. There are passages in scripture which are, to say the least, challenging, if not downright scandalous. As faithful Christians, however, our response is not to discard or ignore or deny such passages, but to engage in faithful dialogue with them. Maybe there is a way of interpreting them that is honest  yet avoids the scandal without destroying the meaning. And maybe there’s not, and we are the ones who must change, and agree with God by agreeing with His word. If we are faithful to this task, collectively and as individuals, we will indeed know the truth, as Jesus says, and the truth will make us free. Our blind eyes will be opened, and our imprisoned souls released. What a day that will be.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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