At the Sunday noon SLT service Bible Sunday was observed. For many the Bible may appear irrelevant or out of date or confusing. For those who trust it, the result can be a transformed life. Trusting God’s word is not easy for anyone, as the people of Israel found at the time of Isaiah. It’s often only when it is proved to be true that trust grows.
The readings on Sunday were Isaiah 55:1-11, Psalm 19:7-14, John 5:36b-end. The reflection follows an outline provided on the Bible Society website and the prayer poem at the end of it is also from that source. Some of the prayers used in the service were also from the Bible Society site.
The British people are well known for talking about the weather. It is so changeable that it’s a never ending topic of conversation. I wonder what it feels like to work for the Metrological Office, supposedly predicting what the weather will be like, only to find that it does pretty much its own thing, no matter how well the winds and clouds have been studied. You simply cannot rely on the weather forecast in Britain being right. That’s why we advise visitors to the country to wear layers of clothing so they can put them on and off depending on the temperature, and why it makes sense to carry an umbrella.
Today is Bible Sunday in Britain and so I thought it would make sense for us to mark the occasion here also. Unlike the British weather, the Bible is something that can be relied upon. It doesn’t change several times in a day, but stays constant.
It’s all right for me to say that of course, but many people, Christians included, perhaps even some who are listening to this reflection now or reading it later on the blog, are unsure if they can trust the Bible. Lots of people criticise it and those people can be highly educated. Might that mean that those who rely on it are foolish and misguided? Even if you trust it, you may still be confused by how the Bible applies to our lives today, whether it should be taken literally or not, and if not, exactly how it should be used today. There are certainly some very difficult parts in the Bible that are very hard to understand, and some that seem plain boring and irrelevant. The difficulties can undermine our trust.
When the passage we have read from Isaiah was delivered, probably at the end of the 6th century BC, the Israelites had difficulty trusting God. You can understand why that was so. Nearly 50 years had passed since the Babylonians had conquered Judah. Jerusalem had been left in ruins and the temple had not only been damaged but also desecrated. The leaders of the Israelites had been deported to Babylon. They were able to live reasonably well but they were not living in their own land.
Perhaps the Israelites struggled to have hope for a different future, but Isaiah was speaking God’s words and God could see the big picture. As the power and supremacy of Babylon waned, the Persians under Cyrus were rising to power. God was planning to use Cyrus to set the people free to return to the Promised Land once more.
The people listening to the prophecy would mostly have been born in Babylon. Like modern day immigrants, they would be a little confused in their identity, being both Israelites and citizens of Babylon. In Babylon there were different gods and the fact that Babylon had been able to conquer Judah would have suggested to the people that the God of Israel was not as powerful as the gods of Babylon. They may well have thought of their parents’ and grandparents’ religion as irrelevant and out of date. The gods of Babylon seemed much the more obvious ones to worship. The result of this was that, when Cyrus issued his edict allowing the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, many were reluctant to go. They had a good life where they were and were not prepared to uproot themselves and start again in much harsher surroundings. It would take a great deal of trust to set out on such a risky venture.
Only when the things which Isaiah predicted began to come true could the people trust in God. It was possible to look back and see that God was behind the punishment of Israel in exile. They could then see that God had a hand in raising Cyrus to power. Within a year of coming to power he issued the edict that allowed them to return home. God was showing, in the accuracy of the prophet’s predictions, that he and his Word could be relied upon.
Although we are living 2,500 years after these events, we still need the same reassurance that the Israelites did. We need to know that God and his Word can be trusted. If you read the gospels and look at the notes that link events there to prophecies in the Old Testament, it’s possible to see just how accurate the Bible is. Many of the events of Jesus’ life were written about accurately long before he was born. The Bible is also accurate in the way it shows us just what human beings are like, unable to live good lives, to become all we have the potential to become, without God’s help.
That help comes through God’s Word in the Bible. Isaiah talks about God’s Word being like rain and snow. The rain and snow fall on everyone helping crops to grow, and God’s Word and his many gifts are given to everyone rather than just to a select few. However, not everyone benefits from the gift of God’s Word because not everyone chooses to work to get that Word into themselves. Like water, that needs to be drunk to refresh us rather than just soaking us on the outside, God’s Word needs to be taken into us to have an effect. We have to choose to make the effort, just as the Israelites had to choose whether or not to respond to God’s Word by returning to Judah.
A few years ago, as the result of my first encounter with online church, I grew spiritually very quickly. Part of that growth, probably a major part, came about because online I could attend services twice a day, every day. In those services I was exposed to God’s Word and I spent time in prayer. When I realised how I was growing and changing, I thought back to another time of great change spiritually and realised that that had come about over a period when I had a pattern of reading Bible study notes and praying every night before going to sleep. Once I was less involved in that online church, I found that I prayed and studied less often. I felt as though somehow I was away from home, struggling to get back.
Even getting involved here at the Anglican Cathedral didn’t give me quite the same amount of time for listening to God. As some of you know, in recent months I and others have been saying Morning and Evening Prayer in the Meditation Chapel daily. During that same period there have been great challenges in my every day life. I can’t say in all honesty that I have felt very close to God in this period, but listening to the Psalms and other Scripture, and praying with others, has held me steady during times of great change and kept me free from doubting God and his goodness. I often find that the words I read speak directly to my situation as though they were written with me in mind.
The Bible has the power to transform us as I have certainly found in the past. St Paul talks about us experiencing the renewing of our minds. This is the crop that is grown in our lives by God’s Word, which does not return to him empty but accomplishes the purpose God has for it and for each of us. If we make the effort to drink in the Word, we can be sure that it will change us for the better.
I’d like to finish with a prayer poem from a woman called Yvonne from Rwanda, who has had the experience of leaving her land and living in a new one much like the Israelites did. She expresses how God has been with her, reliable and trustworthy through all the changes.
“Lord, it’s true that you are close to everyone.
I worship and bless you, from this foreign land
Where you had already prepared a place for me.
I thank you for sustaining me at all times and in every situation.
When I look back and see how you helped me cross valleys, mountains and rivers, I can truly say that you are Emmanuel ‘God with us’. And my prayer is that my children, their children and everyone who reads this will know that there is no other God like you, who takes care of everyone who comes to you in need.
You placed generous people along my journey; you protected me from danger, you changed circumstances in my favour. You fed me even though I hadn’t planted anything, and you clothed me even though I spent no money. In all my times of worry, fear and discouragement, you were always there and your gentle voice whispered these words: ‘I will never leave nor forsake you.’ (Joshua 1.6)
You are totally trustworthy. You became man even though you were God, so that you could come close to your people. You lived in exile when you were still in your mother’s arms; you knew what it was to be hungry; you suffered injustice, betrayal and death on the Cross. Thank you for making this incredible sacrifice so that we could come close to you.
I bless you my God, because I’m no longer a stranger. I’ve found a place to settle among your people. Teach me, Lord, to help the poor; to share, to love, to forgive. Bless all those who have opened their arms, their homes and their pockets to help those in need. ”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor