Potters Bar 21 July 2013: The authority of the Bible (Josh 1:7-9, 2 Kings 22:8-11, 2 Tim 3:14-17)

The Bible tells a story, or a nest of stories. It also contains some codes of law. It gives ethical advice about a whole range of things. It has some theological and philosophical sections. There’s some poetry, some self-contained short stories, a set of four biographies of the same man who is claimed to be God. There are letters, history books and accounts of visions. The Bible is a collection of books of a lot of different kinds.

 

It is also, according to the main constitutional document of the United Reformed Church, its Basis of Union, the “highest authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people” when it is “discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”.

 

What that means is something about which Christians, or even members of the URC, find it extremely difficult to agree. After all the Bible was written at various periods, none less than 1900 years ago, by and for people living in times very different from ours.

 

This difficulty is made worse when passages inside the Bible itself, like the one we heard from 2 Timothy this morning, are made the basis for the claim that the Bible should be the highest authority. We should listen to the Bible because the Bible tells us we that should is not on the face of it a very strong argument and it gets even harder to justify when particular parts of the Bible seem to be separated from the rest and made into a rule book we should follow, banning some things and enforcing others.

 

As we’ve heard this morning there are quite a few places where written texts are referred to within the story. We heard from Joshua about a Book of the Law that was in use before the end of the journey from Egypt to the promised land, so let’s say 1200 years before Christ. We’ve heard from 2 Kings about the discovery of a Book of the Law in the Temple around 600 years later. We’ve heard from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, written between 20 and 50 years after Jesus’ death about the importance and function of Scripture.

 

One of the things this reminds us of is that the book was built up in stages, over time, in the middle of the story it tells. The Bible hasn’t always existed and took the form we know it in quite recently, at the Reformation. The Bible in use in the Roman Catholic Church contains a number of Old Testament books excluded from the Protestant Bible and the Eastern Orthodox churches recognise some more books again. The Scripture Paul wrote about was mostly an Old Testament that probably looked most like the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament and almost certainly contained little if anything we see in our New Testament. The Bible has a history as well telling and reflecting on a history.

 

At the same time each of us, as Christians has our own life story and the Church as a whole has a history and the Bible fits into those stories. In all honesty I’d have to say that it didn’t have a much of a role in my life until I started training for ministry. I came to faith partly by reading books by those for whom Christianity was important and seeing how it made sense in their thinking and their lives, and the Bible wasn’t mentioned all that much in those books. The rest of my journey was moved along by relationships with people and participation in congregations. For many of you, I’m sure, being brought up in the Church or friendships with people it it were more important than study of the Bible. In fact I have to confess that my first real experience of the Bible itself, reading Mark’s gospel as I prepared to be received into the Church in the late 1990s rather put me off. The story was too wild, too strange, too alien for me at that time.

 

What’s more I have always found it hard to argue we should simply obey laws and rules of behaviour developed more than 2000 years ago in societies which were so fundamentally different than our and not, to my eyes, obviously better, indeed in many ways obviously worse.

 

So I don’t think that the authority of the Bible is the same as the authority of the law of the land. It is not primarily a set of rules that say you must do these things and must not do these other things or else these things will be done to you. Some parts of it were that kind of thing when Israel was a kingdom but we don’t live under those laws today.

 

Nor do I think it is the same kind of thing as scientific text books, which have the authority that comes from the best scientific minds agreeing that one lot of theories give the best description and explanation of what we see happening in the world around us. I accept, for example, that theories of evolution are the best way of understanding the variety and character of life on our planet and think that trying to oppose the Genesis account to it, or even to find ways of making them fit together as explanations is to miss the point of what the Bible is.

 

What the Bible is, above all, is a record of and attempt to make sense of and bring to life the experience of God’s revelation of himself to those chosen by him to represent him in a world that has lost the ability to know his love directly. Sometimes that revelation took the form of legal codes. Sometimes it took the form of the inspiration of rituals and forms of worship. Sometimes it took the form of prophetic inspiration of individuals who spoke about the signs of the times. Sometimes it was the kind of wisdom expressed in proverbs and sayings. Sometimes God made himself known directly in the history of the kingdoms of Israel.

 

In all these forms people were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down what they had known of God or known from God. This is the God-breathing that we heard about in 2 Timothy, the work of the Spirit in leading people to witness to what they have known about God.

 

It’s authority comes from that, from our belief that in it we can come to be part of a long story, the long story of God’s work to save the world and bring it into its proper relationship to him. We believe that a special role in that story was assigned to first the chosen people descended from Abraham and Isaac, then to those chosen to be called into the Church.

 

We also believe that this role reached its climax with the coming of Jesus as the Christ, the one who was God the Son and also the perfect human being, showing us the way to be and transforming God’s relationship with us through his redeeming work, above all on the cross.

 

The authority of the Bible lies in its being the place in the world where God’s salvation of us is recorded and made known to us. In it we can hear about and come to know about the Jesus who we can also meet in the Church and especially in the sacraments.

 

The Bible’s authority is not that of a book of law, that’s a human institution, sometimes inspired by God but not God himself. It is not the authority of a set of theories or ideas about anything, not even ideas about God. It is the authority of its being the place above all where we can have a conversation with God himself, a conversation that has a lot of subjects and a lot of different moods but which enables us to get to know the one who made us, who gives us all we have, and who promises that all will be well.

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Potters Bar 14 July 2013 (Deut 18:15-19 and Matt 21:1-11 – prophecy)

Last time I preached here I talked about the absence of God from our lives. I said that if God were fully present to us our lives would be full of love and joy and empty of pain and suffering. Everything that ails us is evidence that God is not here. I also said that faith is hope, belief in the promise that we will live for ever with God. Our miseries in the absence of God are not a reason to turn away from him. We hold on to hope and live towards the kingdom.

 

Our reading this morning from Deuteronomy reaches back to the earliest days of the people of Israel to tell us that this was their situation too. They had had enough experience by then to realise that in their fallen and sinful condition, much like ours, God’s presence was even dangerous to them. But they had hope and they wanted more than anything to maintain their connection with their God, with our God.

 

To enable this to happen God made a series of arrangements. He appointed a king, someone who would rule the people in his name, beginning with David. He set up a priesthood to carry out the rituals that surrounded the communion of people and God in the act of sacrifice. And he promised that when necessary he would raise up a prophet like Moses, someone to whom God could speak directly and send a message for all to hear.

 

When the other institutions failed, when the king departed from God’s way, when the temple worship became empty and lost sight of its real purpose, then a prophet would appear, someone who could speak of the true meaning of the covenant between God and God’s people. To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, as the prophet Micah puts it.

 

To be a prophet like Moses was never really about telling the future, although they often warned that to carry on ignoring God’s will would bring judgement while returning to the true path would bring salvation. To be a prophet like Moses is to do as Moses did: shaking the captive people from their acceptance of slavery and pointing them towards the risky journey to freedom in the promised land. To be a prophet like Moses is to speak like Moses spoke: to bring the commands of God to life, like Moses coming down from the mountain with the ten commandments.

 

Jesus was a prophet even greater than Moses. He didn’t just free us from Pharaoh or one of Pharaoh’s successors. He freed us from sin and death, as the apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. Jesus was a greater prophet even than Moses, he came to fulfil the external law and bring us into the full freedom which is following the law that is written on our hearts. Jesus was the last and the greatest of the prophets, he was more than a prophet. He revealed God to us fully in his own person, not just in words given to him from God. He overcame the separation of God from humanity by being both God and one of us.

 

So where does that leave us? We live after Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection, and yet we still feel our division from God, from Jesus. Do we not still need a prophet? Don’t we still need to hear God’s fresh word, spoken to us by one inspired and appointed?

 

Some would say that we do and that God provides the gift of prophecy within the Church. I’m not sure about that myself. I haven’t seen anything that strikes me as a special gift of prophecy, although I wouldn’t rule it out. I do think, though, that as the Church we are all equipped to bring the prophetic tradition to life.

 

Part of the point of the promise of a “prophet like Moses” was to enable people to tell the true prophets from the false prophets. The true prophet would bring messages that fitted with the traditions of the true religion. These would fit with what was revealed to Moses.

 

We follow the one greater than Moses, Jesus, the prophet from Galilee, as we heard him called in our reading from Matthew. When challenged to say what the greatest commandment was Jesus answered with two quotations from the Old Testament:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind”; and “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

 

These are the heart of Jesus’ teaching, that we are commanded to love. In the prophetic tradition that love was most often enacted through the doing of justice, especially to those who were unable to protect themselves and to fight for their rights, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and alien. These were the people for whom the prophets spoke.

 

In following Jesus’ way, in following the prophet greater than Moses, we are called to work for freedom and justice, to care for the weak and outcast.

 

Prophecy is the word from God that reminds us that all our human institutions, even the church, even this church are not ends in themselves but aids to being what we are made to be, the image of God. To be the image of God is to be full of love, to reach out in care, especially to those who cannot care for themselves. Prophecy is not a matter of special and mysterious knowledge but an inspired return to the simple message that love is all.