Isaiah 55.1-11, Mark 10.46-end
Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we give thanks for the bible, celebrate it and particularly remember those people and organisations that work to promote the bible, among them our own Hamish Bruce who of course works for the Bible Society
Our readings today (OTanyway) is especially for Bible Sunday cos it refers to God’s word. Our gospel is actually the gospel for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, which is today. It seems appropriate to Bible Sunday as well because it describes what can happen when someone encounters Jesus, God’s Living Word. As RC said a few weeks back we have God’s word in the pages of our bibles, and God’s living Word, Jesus Christ.
Someone said of the bible; ‘most books I read, but this book reads me!’ So this morning I ‘d like to start by offering a few examples of people who have been ‘read’ by the bible.
Starting right here in our own church on Thursday when we hold café church. One of those who came on Thursday said beforehand ‘I’d like to be cheered up today’. When we came to our gospel reading we had the same gospel as this morning, and quite extraordinarily, it included those words, ‘Get up, cheer up, Jesus is calling you!’ It was as though the words of scripture were reading this person’s heart.
Then looking further back in 1945 the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann as a very young man, was a pow in Scotland during the 2WW and he and his fellow prisoners were being shown photos of the atrocities in Belsen and Buchenvald. He was overcome with shame and horror. He had little Christian background, but when the chaplain distributed copies of the bible he read Mark’s gospel and the account of Jesus’ crucifixion there, and made a deep connexion between Christ’s suffering and forsakenness, and his own desolation and sense of guilt. He later became the theologian who speaks most eloquently about a God who suffers. ‘The crucified God’ is probably one of his best known books.
Then Charles Wesley, a member of a group of Anglican clergy who formed a club called the Holy Club (can you imagine!) in the 18th century because the church at that time had become formalised, dry and often lax. Wesley wanted things to be better. He was an activist and he was after moral perfection. Burning with zeal he travelled to America to spread the gospel there, only to return a couple of years later having experienced almost complete failure. It was while he was in London listening to a preacher consider Paul’s letter to the Romans that some words stood out for him and he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’. The words were about God doing the work in us and trusting in that rather than working hard ourselves to ensure that it happens (being justified by faith rather than works). The bible was reading him. Of course he went on to be an extraordinarily effective evangelist, not in America, but here in the UK, especially amongst working class people in the new industrial towns and mining villages.
And then, to myself when as a young woman I attended a summer festival at the Corrymeela community in N Ireland. There were speakers, workshops and bible studies. At one bible study we all had to reflect on Jesus’ story about the king who organised a great banquet and sent out invitations to the guests. Suppose we received an invitation what would we do? My immediate response on considering this was to think of who I would pass on the invitation to. I hardly even bothered to look at it. Almost at once I heard, coming from somewhere, the words ‘this invitation is for you’. I still recall the sense of delighted surprise, as I heard those words. It was the start of my journey towards getting this (point to dog collar)
In these kinds of encounters with the bible, a book that reads us, there is often a shift inside us, connecting with a call to be or do something. This comes out in our reading from Isaiah which, by the way reminds us that scripture doesn’t’ just read individuals. It also reads our context. The people of Israel were returning from 70 years in exile. 70 years. Imagine what it must have been like after all that time. Filled with hope. Emerging at last. Everything was going to be better. Instead they were faced with shortages – food, drink, money, petrol (no, not petrol! But you get my drift). Even their pattern of work had changed, making it hard to know whether they would still have enough to live on. Sounds familiar? Typically with this prophet, Isaiah basically challenges their picture of what God is like. Do they imagine his being tight fisted, puny, mean minded, distant, indifferent to what they need as they emerge? What kind of God do they think he is? Do they view the words he had spoken to them and to their ancestors in the past as mere cakeism? ‘You are my people and I will be your God’. If God has spoken a word, it happens. This is conveyed most powerfully in the opening words of our bible when God was creating the heavens and the earth – God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light….Let the land produce living creatures, and it did. Isaiah is the prophet who enlarges Israel’s understanding of God; that he is not just the God of Israel, but creator of the heavens and the earth.
And what about them? If God is this bountiful, faithful, generous, loving, awe-inspiring God, then they, his people will have a calling worthy of him. They might be returning in small, dispirited groups, with few possessions to their name, facing ruined homes, and vineyards and fields overgrown with thistles and thorns, but it won’t be long before they’re sharing good news of a God who has provided for them . They will be like a beacon of hope to countries round about them.
As people also emerging from an exile we might want to take note of this. What kind of words has God spoken to us? Have we held on to them? Do we trust them? If we have good news are we passing it on?
Earlier this week I was chatting with someone whose calling has taken a serious blow during the pandemic. Not only had his calling been dealt a blow, but so had his livelihood. He had trusted God with his calling, done his best, and now this. How could he emerge with hope? God had let him down. What I notice about God’s calling is that it connects with something we enjoy and are good at. This man really likes driving, and needing an income, he applied for and was offered the job of a delivery driver. He likes being the bearer of good news and bringing a smile to people’s faces. If he’d been in the crowd round Bartimaeus that day when Jesus was passing by he would have been the one who encouraged him by saying, ‘Get up, cheer up, Jesus is calling you.’ He’s discovered he can do something similar when he delivers parcels. When the front door opens he says, holding out the parcel, ‘I have good news for you!’ He truly relishes what is usually a pleased smile and thanks from the customer.
God has a calling on all of our lives. Bartimaeus only got in touch with his when he heard Jesus speak those words, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ That’s what led to his decision to follow Jesus. The people of Israel re-connected with their calling as a people loved by God through the pain of exile and the challenge of returning. Isaiah helped them to see God again, but in a new light. So often it’s the bible that enlarges our vision of what God is like. It’s words from scripture that can jolt us or nudge us into a fresh understanding of who we are and who God is.
For many of us there is a sort of instability about our situation as we continue to emerge into a landscape that often seems less fixed than before. Just one ping from Test and Trace and you might have to re jig your whole week. Perhaps somewhere in there is an invitation to re consider our calling. Perhaps God want to re jig that too.
The bible is apparently said to be a book owned by the most people and yet read by the least these days. May that not be true here at St John’s. I’d like to challenge you to read our gospel or Isaiah 55 during the coming week, chewing over the passage in the way Richard described the other Sunday (‘dwelling in the Word’ as our diocese calls it), or picturing what’s going on, or if you have a bible that cross references, following those, or using a commentary, taking a word or phrase during the day. A modern translation is easier to follow than The King James version. If you don’t have a bible, or don’t have one in a modern translation speak to me afterwards. Or, if you prefer an electronic access to the bible try using the Pray as you Go app which offers scripture and prayer for each day of the week.
I’m going to close with the last verses of Isaiah 55 which for some reason our lectionary leaves out. Isaiah speaking God’s word to the dispirited remnant of that small insignificant country of Israel as they return in dribs and drabs to their homeland.
For you shall go out in peace, and be led forth in joy, and the mountains and the hills shall burst into song before you, and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush the cypress will grow and instead of briers will come up the myrtle.
3rd slide This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off.
Christine Bainbridge 24 October 2021