Felicity O’Brien, July 10 2011. All rights reserved. PDF
This is the time in the Anglican church’s year when we celebrate the Bible, so I’m going to look at some of the issues surrounding the bible –what it isn’t, what it is, and how we can best use it, with a brief look at today’s readings.
I’ve brought along a couple of bibles from home. This one is the Cookie Bible. It tells you all you probably shouldn’t know about baking delicious sugary yummy things, step by step, with full mouthwatering instructions.
This bible is the watercolour artists’ bible. It’s also a step-by-step guide, teaching you how to paint the most exquisite flowers.
These two secular books are called bibles, in an attempt to convey an authority, a sense that they give full instructions. But the real Bible isn’t like that.
It’s interesting that the use of the word ‘bible’ these days is taken to mean a book of authority and instruction. Some denominations use the Bible this way, but that can lead to problems. For example, don’t let your kids read Judges when you’re going camping!
(Jdg 4:21) But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground–he was lying fast asleep from weariness–and he died.”
Can we use the Bible then as an instruction manual for our life? A recent mailer about Christian Religious Education described the Bible as “a roadmap which teaches the children about God and that it provides them with vital guidelines for living”.
I like the depiction of a roadmap – the bible shows us the options, just like the AA map with all the state and provincial highways, and different destinations. It’s up to us which ways to travel.
The Bible is more than a single book, the word Bible actually means library, and there are 66 books in it of different types: poetry, history, songs, love songs, short sayings, law, narrative, prophecy … This can also lead to problems about how we interpret it – is it literal, as in a history, or poetic, to be seen as an allegory.
Because there are many different sorts of writing, there are many ways God can speak to us through the Bible. When we open up scripture with the intent of letting God speak to us, there will be a particular phrase or verse that will strike us, even sometimes seeming to jump out, or be highlighted. It’s the only book like it, because the author is there in the words as we read it. Jesus himself is referred to as the Word. Scripture doesn’t sit still on the page like a normal book. When you read it, it stays hidden in your heart, ready for the time when you need it. The more scripture inside, the more it can nourish you.
How then do we use the Bible? The bible itself tells us, such as our Gospel reading, which describes the sort of soil that is receptive to the Word of God, and I’ll come back to that soon.
It doesn’t work to isolate proof texts, like Jael and the tent-peg – many wrongs have been done in the name of Christianity by doing this. Rather, because it is the big story of God’s relationship with people, we need to take the big picture. Read widely, with an openness to letting God teach you about who he, she, it is.
There will be what look like contradictory ideas, for example today’s Isaiah reading :(Isa 55:11) so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’ We can put this up against the parable of the sower and the seed, where the seed that fell on the path was taken away by the evil one. At first this looks like the word didn’t have fruit, in contradiction with Isaiah. But in this very difference, there is a sizzle of meaning, like two images slightly out-of-phase, which will give a 3 d image. I suggest that you contemplate these two readings together during the week.
I didn’t realize when I was growing up what a cool book the Bible is. I knew all the stories about Jonah, and Samson, and baby Jesus, but in my heart I didn’t really know who God was. When I moved to Tawa, recently separated with two little boys, I was invited on an Alpha course, which taught me so much. I received an in-filling of the Holy Spirit at the day away, and this turned my life upside down. Instead of just reading the bible at church on Sundays, I wanted to devour it – I wanted to read it deeply, all the time. I had met the author you see, and I wanted to hear what God had to say, to me.
Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the sower and the seed. Jesus describes four scenarios where the seed fell, with differing results. There are some interesting areas to consider here. Is this story about telling the Gospel, or hearing it?
The sower sowed regardless – he didn’t stop to assess whether the ground was suitable for the seed. I’m sure those of you who are gardeners are careful to plant where the soil is good, and don’t waste seeds by scattering them all over the path, the rocky bit, the weedy bit, but only where you want them. After all, with our Wellington soil, they need all the help they can get!
Maybe this parable says that if we are sowing seed – that is, telling scripture, we need not be concerned about the state of the ground. Some is good ground and some poor. We can leave the state of the soil to God.
In our own lives however we can be responsible for the state of our soil. Perhaps this parable is more about hearing from God than about evangelism and mission, as it is often portrayed. This parable has a warning for us. If we do not understand the word of God, the evil one steals it away. How can we understand it? We can let the Author explain it.
The second group fell away when trouble or persecution came because of the word. They had no depth. This doesn’t say “if” trouble or persecution come, but ‘when’. It is to be expected that there will be opposition. We are forewarned here. Admittedly, in New Zealand the opposition is subtle, but it is there nevertheless. We can be strengthened by meeting together, as we are doing today.
The third scenario is one that resonates with busy modern people. Cares of the world and the lure of wealth have always been part of life, and Jesus knew this. The Bible is so timeless! This verse reminds us to look to what is important. I know how hard it is with a busy life to find the peace and quiet to soak in scripture, but it’s so worth the effort, because when we read the bible with the author there, it is vivid and real, and will sustain us through the cares of the world.
The 4th scenario Jesus speaks of hints at good soil, not spelling out exactly what that means, like an instruction manual. It leaves us to ponder and pray about.
(Mat 13:23) “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
A lot of fruit comes from the hearer who understands God’s word. Whenever I hear that verse, I really want to be that one who bears the fruit. It’s inspiring!
We’ve had a look at what the Bible isn’t, what it is, and how it differs from a normal book. We’ve discovered that richness can be uncovered by putting scriptures side-by-side which don’t mesh neatly, and we’ve looked briefly into some of the ideas in the parable of the sower and the seed, and the results of good soil. Will you tend your soil this week?