On Sunday 24th October, churches in Britain, Ireland and Australia were celebrating Bible Sunday. It was a time to remember the liberating message that the Bible brings to everyone who wants it. Bible Societies provided resources to use for sermons and services, all on the same theme: ‘Free to go’. The focus was Jesus’ manifesto which he declared in the synagogue of his home town, Nazareth, using the words of Isaiah 61:1-2. His slogan could have been ‘Freedom for all!’
The readings were Psalm 119:129-136, Isaiah 45:22-end, Luke 4:16-24. My reflection, based on the Bible Society resources, is given below:
There are some events in each of our lives which we can point to as significant, so much so that they stay with us very clearly for a very long time, if not forever. Our reading today from Luke’s Gospel describes such a landmark occasion for Jesus.
Jesus was in his home town, Nazareth, where he had grown up with his family and had lived the life of a carpenter before leaving to take time out to consider the way his ministry would take shape. Coming back home was sure to be challenging. The people there had known him from his infancy, his family still lived there. How could Jesus convince them that he was other than a local boy who’d grown up like any other? A prophet was not going to be heard in his own neighbourhood as he said.
The time was right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Not so long before, he had put down his carpenter’s tools for the last time and set off to the Jordan river to be baptised by John. From there he had gone into the desert to fast and pray, being tempted to twist his ministry to his own ends but resisting by using the word of God. To the people in Nazareth it might have seemed that a very little time had passed but in Jesus’ life it had been hugely significant. At his baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus before leading him into the wilderness. Now the Spirit had led him back home to declare that he was anointed by the Spirit to proclaim the Good News to the poor. His mission had begun.
Jesus read the passage from the book of Isaiah, what we label Chapter 61 verses 1-2. In a similar way to that of politicians, Jesus shared his manifesto, his mission statement. He wanted his listeners to understand what he was aiming to do for them. Jesus’ slogan, if he had chosen to have one, might have been ‘Freedom for all’.
As the people sat and listened they were initially amazed by the gracious words Jesus spoke. However as Jesus moved on to say more the mood changed from amazement to anger. The reading for today doesn’t go that far but very quickly they were so angry that they were prepared to throw Jesus over a cliff. Jesus saw his mission as being to all, Jew and Gentile alike. At that time the Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would free them from Roman domination. They were looking for the freedom they had experienced in the golden age when David was king. The idea of sharing their blessings with Gentiles didn’t seem to appeal to the people at all. Huge disappointment turned to rage.
We too need to remember that God has a plan to set all people free through the message of Scripture. The message is one of hope for all races, not for one chosen people. All along, God had said that Abraham’s descendants would be blessed not for their own sake, but to be a blessing. It’s the same for those of us who have already been blessed by the hope in Scripture. We need to see that others deserve this blessing also and we should work to make that possible. The freedom addressed by the Bible is not just spiritual freedom but freedom in every way: moral, physical, emotional and spiritual needs are addressed here. It also addresses national and global issues of justice and oppression. God’s written Word spells freedom in the broadest sense of the word.
The Nazareth manifesto of Isaiah’s prophecy represented the unveiling of Jesus’ programme. This reminds us of the power of God’s written Word to bring good news to poor people; set the imprisoned free; give sight to those who can’t see; release the oppressed. Jesus announced a period of God’s favour when all (irrespective of race, status or gender) can receive this liberating good news. This message that spells freedom comes to us through the pages of the Bible. The Bible has been banned, burned and written off and yet survives because it is the written Word of God. The psalmist reminds us that God’s testimonies are wonderful. We’re told that in opening God’s word we gain light and understanding. Do we, like the psalmist, long for God’s commandments?
In Britain and Ireland today is Bible Sunday. It’s a day to look at the challenge we face as God’s people.
We need to read the Bible, not leave it to gather dust on a shelf. It’s not enough to hear it read in church; we need to engage with it personally also. That might mean following one of the Bible in a Year formats, either on paper or online. It could involve subscribing to Bible study notes or engaging daily online with something like WordLive. It might mean listening to the Bible on our iPod as we travel to work or go about routine tasks at home.
The Bible can be puzzling. Those who write about it and teach about it do us all a service. I know how challenging I find it to preach each week here in the Cathedral. I value the prayers you say for me and I’m sure Gareth feels the same. It’s the same for Joyous and me as we take on the responsibility of leading Bible Studies each week – we need and value your prayer support. For those of you with RL churches, there will be people there who also need your prayers as they help others of all ages to engage with the Bible. We also should pray that those who listen to the people who teach and preach may be given the understanding they need by the work of the Holy Spirit.
No matter how much studying and reading of the Bible we do, it is of little use unless it changes us. It’s in living out what we believe that we show ourselves to be people of the Book. We may be the only Gospel that some people will ever meet.
Listen to some wise words from Graham Tomlin from his book Provocative Church:
‘… unless there is something about church, or Christians, or Christian faith that intrigues, provokes or entices, then all the evangelism in the world will fall on deaf ears. If churches cannot convey a sense of ‘reality’ then all our ‘truth’ will count for nothing. Unless someone wants to hear, there’s no point shouting louder. Churches need to become provocative, arresting places which make the searcher, the casual visitor, want to come back for more.’
Are you equal to the challenge to live what you profess to such an extent that you provoke those around you to begin to ask what is different about you?
For many people around the world there is no chance to read or hear the Bible in their own language. It may be that God is challenging you at some point to look at where your charitable giving goes and perhaps choose to give something to the work of translation of the Scriptures so that people can hear the words of freedom in their heart language. Let’s not be like the people of Nazareth who struggled to accept the needs of others, foreigners to them, because they saw only their own need. The message of freedom is for everyone, as Jesus’ manifesto said.
As we give thanks to God for the Book that spells freedom, let us each consider how we will respond to the significant challenges it poses to us.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor