‘It Is Written…’
(Hearing what the Bible Clearly Says)
Sermon at St John the Baptist, Felixstowe
26 February 2023 – Sunday before Lent
Text: ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ (Matthew 4v10)
God give you peace my Sisters and Brothers.
The Medieval Church had a unique way of using the Bible to guide them in their endeavours. This ancient practice is quite simple. When church leaders where uncertain of what God’s will was they would, after a period of confession, fasting and prayer, gather together around a copy of the Scriptures and solemnly allow a Bible to open in front of them and, whichever verse a blind-folded supplicant pointed to, was God’s will for them. ‘Simples’ as they say in Meerkat Land.
The story is told, (so often that it is definitely apocryphal) of the eager newly baptised Christian who, in a desire to find God’s will for their life, copied their forebears, closed their eyes, let their Bible fall open in front of them and read the verse their finger pointed to;
and [Judas] went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27v5)
Thinking this was a mistake, perhaps the wind had flipped the Scriptures to the ‘incorrect’ page they tried again…
‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10v37)
Ashen-faced and trembling they tentatively turned the Bible pages a third time…
‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ (John 13v27)
Of course, not all cherry-picking of Bible verses and using them out of context brings doom and gloom. Later on in Lent, when the bodily disciplines we promised have become wearing and perhaps some of us may long for a small bar of chocolate or that second cappuccino we promised to forego remember that it was Jesus who said…
‘…relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’ (Luke 12v19)
…and how can we, how dare we, disobey the Lord’s clear word to us?
Turning to today’s Gospel reading with Jesus and his (and our) accuser the devil trading Bible verses. Scratching around for the correct combination of words the devil hopes to win the day and see Jesus’ resistance crumble and come over to the ‘Dark Side’.
We have in front of us a series of ‘It is Writtens’ that should caution us against ever proclaiming that ‘The Bible clearly says…’ Reading through these verses I had a small flashback to some of the, shall we say, more heated speeches made at the recent meeting of General Synod and the way fellow Christians used, (or should that be abused?) the Bible to hit each other over the head.
As the preacher in Leonard Bernstein’s iconic Musical Theatre piece ‘Mass’ says;
God made us the boss.
God gave us the cross.
We turned it into a sword
to spread the Word of the Lord.
We use His holy decrees
to do whatever we please.
The Bible has been, and sadly still is, used as a way to proof text our own prejudices. Far too often Christians have twisted it out of context and, in the worst cases, use it for purposes that are almost as devilish as those of Jesus’ tempter. Witness the way in which the Bible has been used down the centuries to permit slavery, entrench misogyny, encourage corporal punishment and the abuse of children and, from our own family’s lived experience, justify the evil godless system of apartheid which was built on the ‘firm foundation’ of misquoted scripture!
This can happen in two ways.
Firstly we can easily find ourselves stuck in a self-referring feedback loop which says, ‘What I believe must be true because it’s in the Bible and the Bible itself says everything in it is true, so my belief (aka prejudice) must be true because the Bible says so’. It’s almost like plugging an extension cord into itself in the hope that this will make your TV work!
Secondly, and please listen carefully, the Bible, by itself, is not the whole word of God. Jesus is the Word of God and it is to Him, under the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit, that the Bible points as the author of salvation. When we forget this and become obsessed with the words of the text we neglect to listen for the whispers and nudgings of the Holy Spirit and find ourselves worshipping the Bible instead of Jesus. This is immensely saddening as it means that, or all the good things it contains within its pages, it becomes a dead letter. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to breathe life into the verses of the Bible and use them to reveal the Word of God to us. Without the Holy Spirit the Bible becomes a collection of words waiting for meaning.
How then do we learn to walk closely enough to the Spirit that the Bible points us to Jesus instead of becoming a mirror for our own prejudices and peccadilloes?
Jesus shows us a way forward as he deals with the devils ‘proof texting’ by getting to the core of the temptations that are common to each of us.
The devil tempts Jesus, with verses from the Bible, to satisfy the wants of his body; Jesus reminds the devil that God feeds not only our bodies but nurtures our souls.
The devil tempts Jesus, with verses from the Bible, to prove that God really loves and cares for him; Jesus reminds the devil that presumption is an arrogance and sense of entitlement borne out of refusing to understand God’s protection for all.
The devil promises Jesus, with verses from the Bible, unlimited power in exchange for obeisance; Jesus reminds the devil that only the One who made us is worthy of our worship, obedience, and love.
These self-same temptations are common to each one of us. In the baptism service the newly baptised commit themselves to;
Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ
against sin, the world, and the devil,
(or in the language of the Book of Common Prayer we are charged to fight against ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’).
Whenever we find we are tempted to read the Bible in such a way that it satisfies our physical desires, we are reading it wrong.
Whenever we find we are tempted to read the Bible in such a way as to presume that we are better and more deserving of God’s love than others, we are reading it wrong.
Whenever we find we are tempted to read the Bible in such a way as to end up worshipping someone or something (including the Bible itself) more than the living God, we are reading it wrong.
However, there is perhaps one thing worse than reading the Bible through our own eyes instead of with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is to not read the Bible at all, or to read it only when we are desperate (remember the story I told at the beginning?), or to read repeatedly only those passages which make us feel comfortable and self-justified.
If there is still space in your Lent for an additional devotion in preparation for Easter why not make it something about reading the Bible, in a spirit of attentive prayer, asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit? If you find it difficult to keep this as a discipline by yourself why not join members of the Ministry Team on weekdays at 9am for Morning Prayer? Each morning a Psalm and two passages of scripture are read carefully and deliberately and those present go on the journey of faith together. And if you can’t be physically present why not join us through the Livestream on the Parish Facebook page?
The only book I have in my possession from my childhood is the Bible I was given when I first went to the Royal Hospital School just across the Orwell estuary in Holbrook. It has been a faithful companion for 55 years and I hope that when I finally step into the life after life it will be in my hands in my coffin. Not because of the words contained in it of themselves (precious as they are) but because those words, Chapter and Verse, point me toward the Word of God who stands waiting to welcome each of us to Paradise where the temptations of the world the flesh and the devil have vanished like the early morning dew and we will spend eternity ‘Worshipping the Lord our God and serving only Him.’
P.S. If ‘Mass’ the Theatre piece by Leonard Bernstein, is unfamiliar to you why not carve out some time (it is just under two hours in length) before Easter to listen to or watch it. This link will take you to a version of it.
Note: This blog ‘It Is Written… Hearing What the Bible Clearly Says is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2023. It may be reproduced free of charge on condition that the source is acknowledged.