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This is the Word of the Lord?

Harvest Festival at Salisbury Cathedral 9 October 2016 photo by Ash Mills
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 16th October 2016
A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
The 21st Sunday after Trinity
 
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

 

In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

“Now kill every male child, and kill every woman who has known a man by lying with him, but all the young women who have not known a man keep alive for yourselves.” The book of Numbers.

 

“God repented that he had created mankind on the earth, and he said I will destroy mankind whom I’ve created from the face of the earth, every man, every beast, every creeping thing and every bird of the air I will block them out from the earth.” The book of Genesis.

 

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, then you must utterly destroy all the notions before you. Make no covenant with them, show them no mercy, breakdown their altars, smash their pillars, hew down the sacred poles and burn their idols with fire.” The book of Deuteronomy.

 

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be silent.” The first letter to Timothy.

 

“Men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received the penalty for their error.” The letter to the Romans.

 

And finally:

 

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, and training in righteousness”. Words from this morning’s reading from the second letter to Timothy.

 

All Scripture is inspired by God. Hmmm… Really? Scripture which includes soaring and inspirational passages like “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall want nothing”, and also contains tacit acceptance of slavery, passages directing the people of Israel to commit acts of genocide, and instructions to stone to death people who plant two different crops in the same field.

 

Every time this verse from the second letter to Timothy comes up in the lectionary, I reflect again on the complicated and complex collection of writings which we have bound into one volume and refer to as the Bible. The Bible is I believe still the bestselling book in the world, and it is probably one of the broadest collections of literature drawn together between a single set of covers that there has ever been. It contains history, poetry, law, inspirational stories, proverbs, myths, biographies, it was written by at least 35 or 40 people over a number of centuries, describing events set in a number of different cultural contexts in the ancient Mediterranean basin.

 

And of course one of the frequent rebukes levelled at Christians and Christianity itself is that its holy book contains a collection of appallingly abusive and immoral accounts of a pretty vicious and unpleasant God and his people. An extreme example of this is the fairly un-nuanced but hugely popular scientist Richard Dawkins who says, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction. Jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic-cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." 

 

And so there tend to present themselves to us two extreme ways of dealing with this book. One is to simply stubbornly stick with the belief that this book is the literal account of the actual instructions of God and try to find excuses and theological arguments around the parts of it that are frankly pretty indefensible. That is the stand point of a small number of extremely conservative evangelical churches.

 

The other end of that spectrum is to surrender any claim to the Bible being really in any way inspired by God at all, and see it simply as a collection of human literature written by a number of people who happened to be interested in religious things.

 

What the writer to Timothy, who may or may not have been Saint Paul, is I think trying to do in our epistle reading this morning is neither of those things. He is writing to a leader of the early church, Timothy, and trying to encourage him to remain calm and steadfast in the midst of a turbulent and changeable culture. The church is just developing its identity as a community of faith, and seems to be being buffeted by a huge amount of popular ideas and debates about how the church ought to be or what it ought to be doing. And what the author is saying to Timothy is, be consistent. Don’t be blown about by every new idea and clever bit of thinking that someone has just come up with on the back of an envelope. He uses the phrase “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable… Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

 

So the appeal to the Scriptures here is not about saying that every single thing in the Scripture, which of course for the author of the letter to Timothy means the old Testament, and possibly a handful of the very earliest of Paul’s writings but probably not, was not saying is that every word of this huge volume of literature is literally divinely dictated and true. What he is saying is that you stand in a line of tradition. There is a trajectory here revealed in the Scriptures which tells us something about the consistency and faithfulness of the God who we love and who loves us.

 

You will have your own opinion on the words of the Bible. Probably over coffee we could talk to each other and there will be passages that I think are more literally true than you do, and vice versa. There will be passages that you think are inexcusably awful and I think can be explained by cultural contexts and historical circumstance, and vice versa.

 

What I think as Christians we have to remember is that we are not worshippers of a book. We are followers and worshippers and members of the family of a man. I always get a little bit nervous about the response “this is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God” at the end of a Bible reading. Not nervous enough, you will notice, to have removed it from our Sunday services, though if you come to church on a feast day during the week you will notice that I have taken this away from those services and replaced it with the response “for the gift of his holy word, thanks be to God.”

 

My nervousness, which is why when I used to be well enough to deacon services here I never used to elevate the gospel book when I said the words “this is the gospel of the Lord” is that my worry is that sometimes we forget that the Word of the Lord, and the Gospel of the Lord, are not printed words on a page. The Bible isn’t the Word of the Lord. Jesus is the Word of the Lord. The printed text in the red and gold book that the Deacon walks in with this morning is not the Gospel of the Lord. The Gospel of the Lord, the good news of the Lord, is the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

The words, the stories, the encouraging and wonderful and inspirational ones, as well as the ones which you or I might be quite pleased to simply tear out and throw away, are the stories of men and women and children not that dissimilar to you and me, over hundreds and hundreds of years, trying their best, and quite often failing to work out how to align their lives to a belief that we are not the centre of the world, but that there is something else which reaches out to us, which we want to call God.

 

And that call to trust and faithfulness and calm is really what Jesus is getting at in the frankly rather peculiar gospel reading too.

 

There are still those throughout the world today who would look to genocide, discrimination and abuse as methods of furthering their aims, and we need only look at Syria and Sudan today. Such actions can never be justified, but what Scripture reminds us is that these are the realities of our common past, ready to be stood against in the broader tradition and witness to a God of love who has a son called Jesus.

 

Amen.