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Ascension Day – sermon given by Rev. Christine Bainbridge

Ascension Day
5 May 2016
Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-end

Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits, enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place; the prophet Elijah who was taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; and Jacob’s dream where he sees a ladder going between earth and heaven with angels moving up and down it. What do all these have in common? Put that question on the back burner. I’ll come back to it.
I’ve just returned from visiting our daughter in Sweden. Sweden likes having special days to celebrate something; they include cinnamon bun day and crayfish day. While I was there they had a day which I think may be special to all the Nordic countries – 1st day of spring day. It involves having a huge bonfire in the evening and, in our daughter’s village, traditional songs sung by the church choir. Everyone turns out for this – it’s a community celebration. The arrival of Spring is a big event when you’ve been through the dark and cold of a Swedish winter. It was unseasonably cold on my first few days there, but the weather on Spring Day was co operatively spring-like (even warmer than here!) and I enjoyed seeing everyone come out of their burrows, as it were. Babies in buggies were being pushed along. The odd looking man with long grey frizzy hair was once again fishing by the lake. 2 boats were out. People were greeting each other in the street. Camper vans appeared.
The big bonfire is a way of marking a significant shift in the seasons. Now, I want to suggest that Luke’s account of the Ascension serves a similar purpose in his gospel narrative; it signals the end of something and the start of something. It marks a transition, in other words. The transition from winter to spring is particularly apt because suddenly people are looking up and out, rather than huddling against the cold as they scurry down the street with barely a glance at passersby. They look up at those immensely tall Swedish trees just coming into leaf. At the sun (especially the sun!), and at each other. Just as the disciples are all looking up as Jesus is taken into heaven.
Luke is the only gospel writer to include the Ascension. It serves as a hinge between his gospel narrative and the book of Acts. It helps to explain why Jesus’ presence with his disciples after the resurrection changes after a while (40 days is the given period which in bible speak means ‘a certain amount of time’). For Luke, alone among the gospel writers, it serves to kickstart the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the sending out of the disciples.
Someone said to me recently that writers are artists. I find that helpful when considering Luke’s narrative. He is attempting to put into words something that is beyond words – a mystery – and he does it by painting a word picture. The mystery is this turning point , this transition– the resurrection appearances coming to an end and that explosive looking up and going out that happens soon after. What is it that has happened?
Luke uses words that tap into moments of revelation in the Hebrew scriptures (all of them vivid pictures) and here we return to that question I asked at the beginning – about the connection between Daniel’s vision of a heavenly court where God sits enthroned and where the Son of Man has a place, the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven after leaving behind a portion of his spirit for his disciple Elisha; and Jacob’s dream of the ladder going between earth and heaven. It is likely that the first hearers of Luke’s gospel would have experienced resonances with all these events from the OT as they heard the account of Jesus ascending into heaven. These resonsnaces would have helped them understand what was happening.
Ok what was happening? Daniel’s vision connects with Jesus now at the right hand side of God, in heaven. The Elijah story reminds us of someone else who disappeared into the clouds and who left his disciples with a portion of his spirit. So, we can say that Jesus, having completed his mission, now returns to his rightful place in heaven, leaving the disciples to carry on what he was doing. Jesus is up there, the disciples (and us) are down here. But what about the ladder with angels moving up and down? This conveys something more.
For that we need to consider how another gospel writer understands the mystery of what is happening after Jesus’ resurrection. We turn to John’s gospel. Jesus talking to his disciples at the last supper, giving reassurance because he knows he is facing his death and therefore leaving them. John 14.3 – I go to prepare a place for you so that you be where I am. Jesus’ ascension is about more than his departure into heaven, leaving his friends to carry on the good work (although that is part of it). The truly astonishing feature of the Ascension is that we are taken up to that heavenly place with Christ; because of his death and resurrection we can be where he is (John). Or, as Paul puts it (Eph 2.6), God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms, and, ‘our life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3.3). So, we’re up there and we’re down here. We dwell constantly at the centre of the Trinity whilst carrying out our daily routine here in Reading or wherever. This is what the Ascension is telling us.
In the Chronicles of Narnia CS Lewis puts it another way. When the children are at school or staying with their uncle in Cornwall they are to everyone who sees them just ordinary children. However, their hidden identity is as kings and queens of Narnia and as soon as they travel to Narnia that is how they are treated – as kings and queens. St Augustine uses the language of citizenship – we are citizens of earth and citizens of heaven at the same time.
In John’s gospel the coming of the Holy Spirit is Jesus breathing on his disciples (John 20.22) and saying that they can now forgive sins. When human beings were created God breathed his breath into them. Now Jesus does the same. We have his breath in us. We are a new creation. We have Christ inside us. If he is at God’s right hand then so are we.
So, Jesus was not simply ascending into heaven so that the disciples could be left to get on with his mission (rather the way a good trainer leaves their trainees to go and do the job themselves), but so that he could take them and us there too, to re-imagine our humanity as totally shot through with the divine because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it’s all our humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
In Sweden there isn’t a bank holiday on Spring Day. Instead the bank holiday is on the Thursday the same week – Ascension Day- a day to celebrate the connection made by the early Christians there between spring and the transforming power of Christ’s victory over death. The Ascension is good news. It’s not only Fairtrade chocolate that is Divine; all human being are too!

Christine Bainbridge

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Sermon given on Easter Day

Sermon Easter Day 27 March 2016
Luke 24.1-12
Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is a play that looks like one of his tragedies until almost the end when there is a startling turn of events. King Leontes is struck by irrational jealousy when he sees his wife Hermione talking with his best friend Polixenes. His jealousy is like a corrosive poison, driving him, his family and his court headlong into disaster. He is suddenly convinced that the child Hermione is expecting is Polixenes’ rather than his; he tries to arrange for Polixenes’ murder. He banishes his wife and when she gives birth to a baby daughter he orders the child to be abandoned in the wild. He later hears that his wife has died. As the play unfolds we see jealousy gradually being replaced by acute guilt and remorse over what he has done. There seems to be no hope for him. He has lost everything dear to him – his best friend, his wife, his daughter. Meanwhile, though, far away, a very different narrative is emerging. His daughter hasn’t died but has been brought up by a peasant family. She meets Polixenes’ son, they fall in love and, without either set of parents knowing, become the means by which their fathers will be reunited. We see Leontes meeting his daughter for the first time, renewing his friendship with Polixenes and then, most remarkably, as the young couple prepare for their wedding, Leontes and Perdita, Hermione’s daughter, are asked if they would like to see a statue of Hermione that has just been sculpted. The statue is extraordinarily life like, so much so that it starts to move! It is Hermione herself, alive, never having died, but hiding away until her husband has a change of heart. Everything is restored and the play ends on a note of joyful fulfillment.
This is a play about restoration, what is lost being found (Perdita comes from a Latin word meaning lost), unearned grace, forgiveness and of course resurrection. I bumped into 2 other members of St John’s during the interval and commented enthusiastically on these resonances. They both groaned slightly and said they could hear a sermon coming on… they were right!
If you came into our church on Good Friday you would have faced chaos and dislocation – the altar was on its side and all around it were crumpled, broken or torn reminders of human activity – the upturned bowl and towels from Maundy Thursday footwashing, fast food litter, a black plastic sack of rubbish, torn paper, a creased shirt – everything jumbled up with 3 crosses lying on the floor in the background. This was an installation; a deliberate construction to convey something about the events of Good Friday. It bore some resemblance to the scenes at Brussels airport after the bomb there. We human beings have a great capacity to wreak havoc and destruction and set in motion a train of events that we hadn’t necessarily anticipated. In A Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy almost has a life of its own. He is unable to control it. Its impact is like the cumulative force of evil that hit Christ on the cross. It breaks, tears, destroys everything in its path, as our Good Friday installation reminded us.
As I looked at the installation I imagined everything there being fixed – the altar being put back, the rubbish cleared away, what was broken being mended, the shirt being hung up or worn – rather the way things might happen in a film when someone does the equivalent of waving a magic wand. And just as happens at the end of A Winter’s Tale when broken relationships are mended and someone even comes back from the dead. Isn’t this what Easter is about?
I want to say that it is and it isn’t. It is because the story of Leontes involves forgiveness, unmerited grace and reconciliation. It isn’t because what we Christians mean by resurrection is not someone coming back to life in the way that Hermione apparently did, nor the way Lazarus did when Jesus raised him from death. Nor is it about what is broken, damaged, dislocated being put back to exactly the way it was before. When Jesus was raised from death he was not exactly the way he had been before. We know that Lazarus was; not long after Jesus had called him back from the dead he was sitting as usual at the dinner table with his sisters Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus and his disciples. Jesus, however, could appear suddenly in a room where the door was locked, he could disappear from supper as he did at Emmaus, he was not immediately recognizable in some encounters. After a period of time the disciples stopped seeing him altogether.
So when we talk about resurrection in the New Testament we are not talking about someone coming back from the dead and resuming their old life. The resurrection body is different from the bodies you and I are inhabiting today. St Paul is clear about that. The resurrection life has a different quality too. When we look at what happened to the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection we see that though they continue in their usual bodies, they are beginning a new kind of life. That’s really that I want to consider on this Easter morning.
There are thousands of pictures of Jesus on the cross, but far fewer that depict his resurrection. It’s not surprising – we don’t know exactly what happened and an empty tomb doesn’t make for an interesting picture. The pictures we do have often focus on 2 themes – victory and encounter. Early pictures of the resurrection show Jesus leaping out of the tomb, often waving a flag and resting a victorious foot on a sleeping soldier who was supposed to be guarding the entrance. Jesus has conquered sin and death. Later paintings focus on encounter – Jesus meeting Mary in the garden or at supper in Emmaus.
Now, the conquering of sin and death actually happened on the cross rather than at the point of resurrection, and there is a cross on the flag the resurrected Jesus waves to remind us of that. In the earliest frescoes, sculptures of Jesus on the cross he isn’t shown as a tortured victim. He looks serene, cheerful even. This is the Jesus of John’s gospel who at the end says ‘It is finished’, meaning, ‘I’ve done it’; I’ve completed the task I was sent to do, I’ve drunk to the dregs the cup I was offered. I’ve seen this through to the bitter end. The cross is the triumphant ending. Without it resurrection would not have happened.
We can easily think of the resurrection as a happy ending to the sad story of Good Friday. Instead it’s the start of a whole new chapter in human history. It’s a beginning, not a happy ending. When Leontes in A Winter’s Tale is struck by irrational jealousy he sets in motion a destructive and dislocating train of events. In completing his death on the cross Jesus releases a dynamic so powerful that it can divert, transform, undo such events, so powerful that it challenges death itself. The resurrection is witness to this. It heralds the new beginning.
In Luke’s account of the resurrection it’s clear that the disciples weren’t expecting this at all. They were adjusting to Jesus’ absence. The news the women brought didn’t make sense. They were grieving. They had lost someone. Their framework was one of endings. Some of them were preparing to return to their home villages and towns and resume their old way of life. What completely bowls them over as the narrative moves on (if you read the rest of Luke 24) is the major feature of resurrection life and what makes it distinctive and why it won’t necessarily enable us to pick up where we left off or to wave a magic wand that would enable all the fragments and dislocated pieces in the church on Good Friday (or in our lives for that matter) simply return to their rightful place.
So, what is this major feature? What is this new beginning? It’s Presence. Jesus is present, God is present to the disciples and to us in a way he wasn’t before. God with us (‘Emmanuel’) has become a reality. Whether we are travelling, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, or eating together, especially at Communion, or fearful behind locked doors, or asking, like Mary in the garden, ‘Where is he?’ Christ is present. There is no place where he isn’t. The witness of the resurrection makes this a fact. When Peter and the other disciples were sharing the good News about Jesus this was what they were conveying. Jesus was with them. They were continuing what he had started. They could offer a new start, forgiveness, brokenness being mended, but above all, Christ’s presence with them. It’s that Presence of resurrection we take with us wherever we are and especially into those places and situations of dislocation, brokenness and pain.

Christine Bainbridge

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Palm Sunday

Sermon Palm Sunday 2016. Luke 23.1-49

(Following a dramatized reading of the passage)

I sometimes get about by cycling. When I’m on my bike I’m much more conscious of hills. When faced with a particularly steep one I used to get off and walk – it just felt easier. When, though, I had to climb a very steep one every day to reach the church where I was working I learnt to use my gears and stay on the bike. It still felt very hard work. Then one day I tried cycling the way serious cyclists do, bending my whole body in the direction of travel (in this case, the hill) and keeping my head down, rather as though I was acknowledging the force of gravity and allowing it to flow over me so that I might more easily reach the top. It worked!

Last month I was staying in a hilly part of Wales when there were tremendous gales. Walking out afterwards I could see trees on the hill side that had been uprooted by the force of the wind. What intrigued me, though, were trees leaning down the slope of the hill, with most of their branches directed that way, leaning towards the direction of the wind and still standing. It was as though embracing the wind and the force of gravity had saved them.

As we enter the most holy week in the church’s calendar and accompany Jesus on his way to the cross we see in that reading from Luke’s gospel how Jesus bends into and reaches out to forces of evil far more powerful than those of gravity or gale force winds. He does not turn aside or try to avoid the night time arrest, the beating up and insults of the temple guards, the cat and mouse games of the chief priests, Pilate and Herod, nor the torture of the execution itself. There is a gracious bending into it. This is not a passive acceptance, or an uncomplaining acceptance of pain, but a deliberate movement of immersion in the chaos, cruelty, injustice, lies and rejection we have just heard described in our reading. It is a deliberate immersion into the depths of human suffering.

At the end of our service this morning you will be invited to take up a palm cross as a sign that you are willing to follow Jesus through the events of Holy Week, to the crucifixion itself. We’ll be moving back a week from the events of Good Friday just described in our gospel reading, to the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph with everyone cheering and singing his praises. We’ll go outside, waving our palm crosses. Having heard what we’ve just heard, though, we know what lies ahead. We might take up our cross cautiously.

I want to suggest two ways in which we might do this that echo the way the tree bends into the wind. First, even if you do stick your palm cross behind a mirror or use it as a book mark at least once a day during this week hold it, feel it. Let its plant matter remind you of the earth, the created order of which we humans are a part, let its flimsiness remind you of the fragility of our planet and of human life, let its shape invite you to open your eyes to Jesus on the cross, let its pliability encourage you to bend towards that suffering, to look at it.

Secondly, where you are experiencing suffering in your own life, especially perhaps something that you can’t easily acknowledge to others, imagine yourself with Jesus beside you walking towards whatever it is, facing it, bending into it, feeling the feelings it gives you, allowing them to flow over you and then past you, letting them go, like the cyclist leaving the hill behind. This not to condone whatever it is, nor to deny it. It’s more like going through your baptism with Christ – under the water, knowing you will come up again with him to new life.

 

We need resourcing as we take up our cross. Make the most of communion today. Remember that as you eat the bread and drink the wine you are drawn into Christ’s death and also his rising from death. Come to church again on Maundy Thursday (8pm) to be reminded of that Last Supper and to have your feet washed so that you are part of him on his and your journey to the cross.

Let us pray:

True and humble king,

hailed by the crowd as Messiah;

grant us the faith to know you and love you,

that we may be found beside you

on the way of the cross,

which is the path of glory. Amen

Know your enemy – sermon given on Sunday February 14th 2016 by Richard Croft

Despite a moderately busy day on call on Friday at Tilehurst Surgery, I found myself responding to an inner call – perhaps even a temptation – to cash in on the ‘Valentine’s day £20 meal for 2’ offer at a supermarket on Oxford Road. Finding 20 minutes, I headed in to a foyer positively blooming with pink and red roses, wove past the special offers of chocolate, wine, heart-shaped coasters and joined the happy throng choosing their 3-course ready-made dinner plus bottle of plonk. And came away triumphantly with a very nice selection of starter, main, 2 sides, dessert and a bottle of Rioja. And jolly good it was too.

What on earth was I doing? Why did I feel such a compulsion to plunge in to the cultural tide that is St Valentine’s Day and happily just go with the flow, a sucker to smart advertising? Was it wrong? I think probably not and at least I was aware of just letting go and happily doing what everybody else was. Hold that thought, we’re coming back to it.

Who exactly was St Valentine? Well, we’re not quite sure. There are several legends about him and I have unashamedly chosen the one that fits best with the day’s sentiment. Although most of the legends do have a common thread so it may not be far from the truth. According to one legend, he was Bishop of Terni, in Italy, in the third century. He performed marriages for Christian couples at a time when it was still illegal to help Christians, and was arrested by the Emperor, Claudius II. He and Claudius seemed to get on well, but Valentinus refused to stop his ministry to Christians and so was clubbed and beheaded on February 14th, 270AD, thus permanently ending the friendship. His unflinching support for Christian couples wishing to marry is why he has become the patron saint of love. In addition, he is patron saint of epilepsy, bubonic plague and beekeeping (seriously). One thing all the legends about him agree on: he was martyred for his faith in Christ and that at least should give us pause for thought in the midst of the sentimentality of the modern festival.

In the liturgical calendar, this year the festival of St Valentine falls on the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a season of penitence, of reflection as we prepare for Easter. The two themes of St Valentine and penitence seem rather clashing but I’m going to try and trace a line between them.

Our gospel reading today from Luke 4 was about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I want to connect this with the sermon that Vince delivered a couple of weeks ago about the gospel. That we have here in this book 4 gospels, texts written by 4 people – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Recording as they do the story of Jesus – his life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection, it becomes gospel for us as it is read out in the body of the church, in this event of worship and holy communion, as we stand and turn towards it, as we honour it. How is this gospel for us here, now? How does this story speak to us?

This story comes just after Jesus’ baptism by John, a high point when he was affirmed in his role by the coming of the Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ . And right before the start of Jesus’ public ministry of preaching. It is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke although Mark gives very little detail. All 3 agree that it was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and testing. We might imagine then that this was something Jesus needed to do, had to do. What he did was to face the enemy.

Firstly, this was a period of withdrawal from normal life for 6 weeks. That puts a person in a completely different headspace. 4 years ago Rosemary and I spent 6 weeks walking the Camino de Santiago on a sabbatical. Now I wouldn’t draw any parallel with what Jesus went through, for us it was a very joyful experience, but the experience of withdrawal from normal life was quite profound and helped us to see ourselves and our lives in a different way, unencumbered by our normal responsibilities. Even more so for Jesus, alone, deliberately fasting, apart from his family and friends, his work, the Roman occupiers. It would have given him time to reflect, to understand his mission, to see and identify what it was he must face in order to fulfill his calling to be Messiah, Christ, the anointed one. And to have a clear sense that there would be no short cuts.

His first temptation came through his body, through hunger: turn these stones into bread! Go on, you can do it! What fast track to success and fame that would have been when he got back: ‘Want something to eat? Watch those stones, guys!’ And the second, an appeal to his spirit: ‘Worship me and all this will be yours!’ So give in to the spirit of the age, don’t choose the hard path, prioritise material gain, popularity, license: anything but the worship and service of God. And wow you’ll be great! And the third – interesting one. ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.’ What was that? A temptation to overreach himself? To be absolutely sure, one way or the other, of who he was? Or was it the temptation to commit suicide? Was the magnitude of what was facing him so immense that he almost couldn’t face it, so end it now? It’s an intriguing thought.

How did Jesus face these 3 temptations, these appeals to follow an easier path, or to prove beyond doubt who he was, or perhaps even to end it all? Jesus had a clear sense of mission, grounded in a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the OT. Three times he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy records the law as given to Moses during the period when the Israelites had escaped from Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness, before they were able to enter the promised land. Just as Jesus in the wilderness was a ‘between time’, after his calling but before his public ministry, so this was a ‘between time’ for the new nation of Israel. Deuteronomy tells how the people are to behave, how they are to act in relation to one another, and to God, and lists the promises given to them. It is from this book, the ‘wilderness book’ if you like, that Jesus finds wisdom to face down the enemy. ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ , in answer to ‘turn stones into bread’. (Matthew adds that bit about ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ that isn’t in Luke but is in Deuteronomy.) He refuses the appeal to become a showman, a performer, gaining short-term popularity but failing in every other respect. ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ to push back the appeal to worship satan, the spirit of the age. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ in reply to the temptation – backed up by scripture – to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.

How does this speak to us? I think a lot of the time we don’t see – or perhaps don’t want to see – what it is that compromises us, that leads us away from perhaps the best that we can be. I mentioned the sense of almost compulsion I felt about the special offer on a Valentine’s day dinner because on a trivial level, that’s the kind of thing I mean. The influences on us that pull us this way and that that often we just give in to and go with the flow. A lot of that is neither here nor there, like buying a ready meal from the supermarket, just like a load of other people. But even that might be the thin end of the wedge: the appeal of advertising, the sense of wanting to be like everyone else, to have and buy more than I actually need ‘just because I can and it feels good’. To count my worth in possessions. The classic temptations are these: money, sex and power. Cast your eye around politicians, celebrities, judges and all the rest and it won’t take long to see how easily men and women of talent and promise fall victim to one or all of these. How does it happen? The opportunity, the sense of being invincible, no-one will find out…until they do. And then we should look at ourselves. There is no-one in this place who has not felt the pull to compromise, or who has not given in in some way to the attraction of money, sex or power. Then there are more subtle, or not-so subtle ways that we fall in with the crowd without even noticing: holding a grudge, bitching, thinking the worst of others, blaming others, gossiping.

I’m not going to go on. The challenge of Lent is to take time out and reflect on what it is that tests us, that tempts us, what our enemy is. To be aware is more than half of the battle. I’m going to ask us now to keep silence for a minute or two to reflect: where is your battle?

Richard Croft

Sermon given 24th January 2016 by Rev. Christine Bainbridge

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4.14-21

The power of words from scripture. People hearing words from the bible and finding themselves shifted to a place of calling/commitment – Amy Carmichael late 19th century (1 Cor 3, building a foundation..), Sadhu Sundar Singh 1903 age 14 Jesus asking ‘Why are you persecuting me?’, Rev Mark last Sunday. These words came to them because they were already very familiar with scripture – part of the furniture of their lives. Hearing them in what seemed a fresh light moved them a new direction.
In our readings today we see 2 groups of people affected by words from scripture. Most of them would have had some familiarity with the content of what they were hearing. The Israelites listening to Ezra reading from the scroll already knew what was meant by the Law, but they hadn’t heard it read aloud or explained before – they’d been in exile in Babylon remember. Likewise the Jews listening to Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah were familiar with this passage – it resonated with a deep longing and expectation that God would one day send a leader like King David who would restore their God-given destiny to live freely as God’s chosen people. The words Jesus reads had presumably already had a profound impact on him and on his understanding of his life’s task. They are his mission statement.
(Law and Prophets – 2 of the sections of what we call the OT. Hebrew people grouped the scriptures into 3 parts – Law, former and latter prophets and the Writings).
Jesus and the first Christians were familiar with these Hebrew scriptures. Several things to notice – people listened to readings – many were illiterate so had to learn from hearing. The scrolls were hand written, heavy etc. No printing. Couldn’t carry your books round with you. It was a communal activity. Explanation was needed – and, in the case of Ezra’s listeners, translation – they had started speaking Aramaic in Babylon, but their law was written in Hebrew. Their listening produces a profound effect – they are deeply moved, weeping as they hear what had been handed down to them now read in their own language. The reading would have been a powerful reminder of God’s covenant with them, of his promises, his faithfulness in bringing them back to their own land once more. Even more, it reminded them of his constant care – here were the guidelines on how to live in this new situation. He wasn’t leaving them to work it out for themselves in this challenging situation of rebuilding Jerusalem, restarting agriculture, building homes etc; he was giving them a framework for their lives in a new and challenging context. There would have been some sadness too that they were not living up to their calling as God’s covenant people. As with Amy C, Charles W and SS Singh they give them new clarity about their calling.
Those listening to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah in the synagogue were also highly attentive to this emotive passage of scripture. How would Jesus explain it? It’s hard to think of a more dramatic statement than ‘today, in front of your very eyes, this passage is coming true’. I imagine that as Jesus read this passage he was moved as it once again stirred up what was his calling as God’s Beloved Son. His listeners, like Ezra’s, were moved, but in a different direction – more about that next week – or read on to see how they reacted.
Real drama in both descriptions of reading from the bible. Let’s imagine some different scenarios, though;
Supposing Ezra and others who had access to these valuable scrolls of the Law had decided that it would require too much effort to translate the text, or that people would find it too hard to understand, or that it was better that only a few educated men (probably) should have access to them? Or suppose there had been no handing down of what was known about the Law within families during the Exile?
Or, supposing in Jesus’ time hardly anyone had heard a reading from the prophet Isaiah and there was no sharing in families and communities all the stories of Israel’s past, including that golden age of King David?
There would be no context in which the reading would make immediate sense. It would be like pouring water on parched earth around a plant – at first it simply runs off.
This is more the situation we are in today. Although the bible is a best seller, it’s also one of the least read best sellers. It’s easily accessible, unlike in Ezra’s time, – we can Google it, install an app on our phone, read it on our Ipad, listen to it on CDs, all in our first language, almost whatever that is, but its contents are less and less well known, even in churches.
There are 3 main ways in which we nurture our faith as Christians – through a deepening acquaintance with the bible, through prayer and through spending time with other Christians (including sharing Holy Communion together). As we do these things we are being resourced for living Christ-like lives (eg quiet acts of loving kindness) wherever God puts us. We may start in different places – for some of us the doing is the main thing, for others the comfort of being with other Christians and of the sacraments, while a few may start with bible reading and prayer. Bible reading and prayer are probably the hardest for most of us because they don’t easily chime with most of our other activities. Unlike Sadhu Sundar Singh, Amy Carmichae few of us wilI have been brought up with prayer and bible reading from childhood. For us, getting to grips with either of them is more like learning another language or a new computer programme or learning to drive. It requires practice, motivation, and usually some help and support from others. We are like the parched earth around that plant – pour the water of scripture over us and it just runs off; time and patience are needed for it to soak in and take effect.
The church is here to help with this. Some suggestions – we can be helped to develop a daily pattern of bible reading if we use bible reading notes eg BRF, SU. A short 3 week paper version is available over there for 50p. The same notes can be installed as an app on your phone – see details for BRF. You can listen to the bible on CD. If you would like to try this borrow one from the display. Our small groups sometimes work through a book of the bible. If you would like to learn more about the bible by reading with others speak to one of the home group leaders to find out about their programme (Hold up their details on the notice sheet). You may like to go slowly through Sunday’s readings during the week – quite a good place to start – details on the display.
There are many good reasons for reading the bible regularly. The one I’m highlighting today is that through it we gradually (and perhaps sometimes suddenly), develop a sense of the direction in which our life is to go. God doesn’t want us to be in the dark about what to do and where to go when we are following him. He is ready to speak to us through scripture and wants us to listen, just as the Israelites did when Ezra read to them.
Our daughter now lives in Sweden so we are starting to go there regularly. We don’t know Swedish at all. Recently someone told us how thrilled Swedish people are when a foreigner attempts even a few words in their language. It’s such a little used language. I think God is like that when we struggle to read our bibles and pray. His rewards far outstrip our puny efforts.
I’m giving the closing words to Amy Carmichael, from one of the many letters she wrote to fellow workers– ‘So first, give much time to quietness; we have to get our help for the most part directly from our God. We are here to help…and we must each one of us learn to walk with God alone and feed on his word so as to be nourished. Don’t only read and pray. Listen. And don’t avoid the slightest whisper of guidance that comes. May God make you very sensitive (to his voice) and obedient.’ Amen.
Christine Bainbridge