Monday, 31 October 2011

Don't Waste Time On End Times....

4 Before Advent (2011) Year A RCL Principal

The End Is Nigh!

You have to feel sorry for Harold Campion.  Perhaps you heard his name on the news back in May when on the 21st of May this chap predicted with absolute certainty that the end of the world was coming and that the world would be destroyed, the dead would rise from their graves and the faithful would be raised to heaven by way of the Rapture.  When it didn’t happen he quickly revised his calculations, said his Biblical Mathematics had been wrong and proclaimed with the same absolute certainty that the end of the world would come on the 21st of October.  Did you notice it?  Nor did I?

Though he has done the same thing twice before this year – proclaiming without a shadow of doubt that the end of the world would arrive on May 21st 1988 and September 6th 1994.  As the head of Family Radio, a Christian Media Ministry broadcast all over America, Camping has now retired from his public ministry and has since been heard to say that no one does know the day or the hour of the return of Jesus – finally admitting what Jesus said a long time ago a few verses later than today’s reading in Matthew 24v34 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

These predictions of the end of the world have provided fodder for both fundamentalists and comedians over many years!  There used to be rather grey looking individuals that would wander up and down places like Oxford Street in London wearing sandwich boards or holding up placards which told us ‘the End of the World is nigh! Or there were folk who would stand on the streets of Cambridge on a Saturday or who would proclaim at speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park ‘Repent, Jesus is coming’.  Maybe they still do, though we don’t hear much of it these days. 

Books have been written with titles like ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ and ‘Arise and Reap’ which have told those who have read them that we are living in the end times, and Jesus is coming back soon.  Well, one day they will be right – the Bible says that Jesus will someday return and – in the words of Mother Julian of Norwich – ‘All will be well and all manner of things shall be well’.  But those who seem to fixate on working out exactly how the words of the book of Revelation fit into the present age seem to be missing the point – how are we living here…

When we pray in the words Jesus taught us, the one prayer he gave us to say, we say ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ – that’s not just about the time when Jesus will return and the kingdom will come in all it’s fullness – it’s also a statement of hope that God will bring His reign to the earth NOW, and a statement of our willingness to be involved in that.  Jesus soon goes on in that prayer to ask that we know forgiveness and share that forgiveness with others, that we have the food we need for each day, and that in trials we will stand firm.  Any understanding, hope, faith we may have for heaven coming to earth must be grounded in lives of love and service here on earth.

Look at today’s lesson from Matthew Chapter 24, for instance.  Jesus says that life will become very difficult indeed for those who follow him – and hints of needing to endure to the end, but he doesn’t obsess about what that end will be, he talks about needing to remain faithful. 

Now when Matthew is writing – we reckon about AD 70 or later – the Church is being torn apart by persecution, many are abandoning faith, the Jewish people are on going to be decimated by the Romans and sometime after, or even just before, the Gospel is written down and made available the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed.  Jesus’ words about the destruction of the temple stand out in the mind of the writer as he is compiling his writings and stories to make up the Gospel and it’s those words that open our Bible passage, Mt 24:
1As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Jesus could see that time would come when the political intrigue that the leaders of Israel were involved in would eventually bring about chaos and destruction for Israel.  And he warns his followers that a time will come that being faithful to his message will endanger their wellbeing, indeed even their lives.

But Jesus has one message: “Stick with it, don’t be distracted”  - don’t listen to false prophets, don’t get caught up in worrying about the end, don’t allow the disloyalty and hatred of others make you give up.  Stand firm in the face of persecution, live with hope, but don’t live just for the end – as no one knows when it will come….

Common sense tells us that to live for something that might happen is a recipe for disaster.  We worry, we fret, we get nervous, or we constantly look forward without seeing where we are or where we should be going.  Jesus doesn’t want his followers to be distracted – as he says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel ‘where your treasure is, there will your hear be also’ or, in other words, what you think is important will be what you focus on…

I honestly believe Jesus wants us, his Church, to focus on one thing… and that is summed up at the end of the Gospel reading we heard just now, in Chapter 24 verse 14 he says:
And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world…

That’s the focus we should have in the Church today!  We call it Mission – and part of that mission is evangelism, sharing the good news of the kingdom.  And it IS Good News – that amidst the turmoil of this world, even when there are wars and violence, natural disaster, strife and hatred, even then Jesus is with us.  Even in the worst that this world has to offer Christ offers us his strength, his love, his hope, his faith – through his Holy Spirit he has promised to be with us, and if we were to go to the very end of the Gospel we would read Jesus’ parting words to his disciples.  Words that we call the Great Commission, when Jesus instructed his disciples, and through them instructs us, to carry on his work of making the Good News real in everything we do and we say.  In loving God and our neighbour, and learning to love ourselves as God loves us.  In speaking the truth even in difficult situations, in standing up for what is right even when it is not the trendy, easy or popular way.  In keeping Christ as the absolute centre of our lives and as the basis of our worship and living.

This is what we are called to focus on, this is where our heart should be – rather than winding ourselves and others up about when the end of the world might be coming or not, and exactly what form it is going to take, we should focus on our calling as Christ’s people to share this good news, in word and action, in silence and in service and we should always keep in mind these words which we call the Great Commission:

Matthew 28.19-20
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Big Bible Overview

Time to get this Deep Stuff Blog back up and running... This week is our Big Bible Week, where we are celebrating the gift of Scripture... so here's my overview talk which I presented this evening.  These are my own notes so its a bit warts and all.......

The Big Bible overview

I want to start with a little ‘word association’ exercise – it’s quite a simple one, I’ve only got one word that I want you to consider – Bible.  What comes to mind when I say ‘Bible’ – anyone?

Here’s a Vox Pop from some young people…

There are so many words that we can associate with the Bible.  Some are purely descriptive titles, some are somewhat more loaded.

Scripture, for instance is relatively simple – the Bible is the Holy Book of Christian Faith.
Writings, again a simple one – all of the parts of the Bible are definitely writings.

But we get a little more contentious if we start using words like ‘The Word of God’, or ‘Truth’, or ‘Inspired’.  Even within our Christian Faith there’s a fair amount of disagreement as to what those terms might mean.  For instance what do we mean when we say ‘Word of God’?  In the first chapter of the Gospel of St John we have a wonderfully resonant piece of Scripture that seems to have a different perspective – “In the beginning was The Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’.  You see in the Greek world view which shaped the writing of John’s Gospel a word was considered to be connected to the person who said it – it remained in some way a part of someone.  So to describe Jesus as the Word was to say that he still remained as part of God the Father, the word goes forth and yet remains.

And there are many who think that way about the Bible too!  I’m not going to tell you how you should understand it and how you should interpret this book, but there is in the historic Christian faith a belief which is stated beautifully in the 39 Articles of the Church of England – that Scripture contains within it all things necessary for salvation…  That there is ultimately no need to have anything more than this book to discern the working of God’s salvific word to the world.

2 Timothy 3.16 "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."

Inspired… an important word, as it is one that the Bible uses to describe itself – or to be specific it is a word that St Paul uses to describe what we might call the Old Testament.  St Paul was concerned that these new Christians who he was pastoring were, as they believed that Christ freed them from the constraints of the law, leaving behind also the sacred writing of the Jewish faith – the law and the prophets – within which the wisdom of God could be found.

It’s tricky to argue about inspiration of Scripture by saying ‘it’s because the Bible says it’s so’ –that’s the very definition of a circular argument, one which only finds it’s justification in self reference…  Also that as we know Paul was writing about before four hundred years before the books which got into our Bible actually got into our Bible (but more about that in a minute) and Judaism didn’t set what was to be included in the equivalent of their ‘canon’ of Scripture until after the Christian Church did.

But if we do believe that God was somehow in the writing of this book, then inspiration is a good place to start. 

Does the word Inspire make you think of any other words that are very similar?
All breathing words – Respire, to breathe,  Conspire ‘to breathe together’, Expire to lose breath, and all from the same root: Spirit.  In both Hebrew and Greek the word ‘Spirit’ – Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek can be variously translated as Breath, wind, spirit, air.

So when St Paul talks of all Scripture being inspired, he is talking about God breathing into the Scriptures, that somehow God was present in the transmission of these Scriptures – and (if we believe that Paul was somehow talking about the whole canon of Scripture and not the undefined ‘Hebrew Bible’ of his day) then God was in on the way that our Bibles came together as they did, and how they found themselves looking like they do.

And that’s really what I want to talk to you about this evening.  It’s just taken me a while to get here.

First of all I want you to have one phrase in mind as we do all that we do here for the next few minutes

By Faith:
from Faith,
to Faith
& for Faith

Our Bibles come to us – however we might want express Inspiration, and my point of being here this evening is not to justify one way or another of thinking on that – By Faith.  Those who told the stories, transmitted the stories between generations, wrote them down, compiled, edited, did so because of their faith, sharing these things with others who were a part of that faith or with the desire to draw people into that faith, and in order to inspire and nurture faith. 

So I would always recommend praying before opening up a Bible, because it’s an act of faith to want to truly discern the truth within our Scriptures – and besides if the Holy Spirit was in on the writing of these books, surely it would be good to have the Holy Spirit help us out with the understanding of it.

As Kate shared at Lunchtime, the whole of this book shares one great theme – God’s Story of salvation.  God’s relationship with human beings and his will to draw all people to himself.

So what does that look like?  What does that mean?  Well from the creation hymn at the start of Genesis to the vision of the end in the Revelation to St John of Patmos all of these seemingly disparate parts have this thread of God’s work in, through, towards, because of and sometimes despite human beings.  We have a huge variety of writing and a number of developments, and lots of interpretations of what it means when God interacts with people.

Of course what I should say is that the Bible we have today is not a book, but a library of books.  Biblios, the greek word from which we get Bible is the plural of biblion meaning book.  So it’s books.  That may seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s amazing how easily we lump together the whole book as if it’s one thing, one style, almost as if it was all written at one time with one author.  It wasn’t. (Though we could claim God was the ultimate author, of course)

So some thought about that…

The Bible isn’t just one kind of writing, it’s lots of different genres or styles.  I’ve said before that if it had a trailer like a movie we’d be here forever as the voice over said ‘War, passion, faith, romance etc etc etc’ as we went through the type of thing we have in the bible.

Pop Quiz

How many books do we usually have in our Bibles?  66 – 39 & 3x9…
Can you tell me how they’re divided? Old Testament/New Testament (Covenant)
Does anyone know what languages they were originally written in? Hebrew & Koine Greek

Can anyone think of a style of writing within our Bibles that we might call a genre?
Here's some I thought of....

  • Hymn/Worship
  • Poetry (including Erotic Poetry!)
  • Proverbs/Wisdom
  • Parables
  • History
  • Law
  • Letter
  • Vision/Apocalyptic
  • Gospel
  • Prophecy
  • Myth
  • Humour/Comedy
  • Horror!  Texts of Terror!
  • Romance
  • Genealogy

Look through these passagesof Scripture and with your neighbour or a few people around you talk about what type of writing each one is.  I am only going to give you a couple of minutes with this one, so some of you might want to start at the end and work forward and others at the beginning… Or just pick a few out at random….

Just being aware of this should make a difference to how we read our Bibles.  When our only contact with the Bible is having it read to us in Church week by week we have a very artificial, very stilted and (to be blunt) wholly inadequate view of what the Bible contains – particularly as so often we hear the Bible read in a certain type of Bible Reading voice which makes it all seem like the same kind of thing.  Not in these parishes, of course, but we have all heard people stand up and read in a unique way that I like to call a Biblical monotone which reduces our Bibles to one kind of genre, boredom…!  (Yes I know that boredom isn’t a genre, but it could be in some Churches)

Both on those occasions when we read the Bible out loud and when we read the Bible every day (this is a good discipline but may be more a statement of hope than of fact for many of us) learning to discern the different styles of writing we are reading and consciously thinking in terms of ‘this is a letter’ or ‘this is a hymn’ or even within a letter, such as Paul to the Philippians or to the Ephesians  or the Colossians, working out that Paul is probably quoting hymns in his letters (for Instance ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ or ‘Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped’) can enrich our study of the Bible and prevent us from falling into the trap of thinking ‘well, it’s Bible innit?’ and just leaving it at that.

Something that has helped me understand more of the genres and the background to the Bible has been an Academic method of Bible Study called Source Criticism.  Now I’m not going to get all academic on you – I probably couldn’t if I tried anyway – but one of the things that has helped me get to grips with the Bible, as well as causing me to scratch my head and sometimes find myself wrestling with it’s meaning, is the process of considering where it’s all come from.  What is the source of the Bible we have, how did it get into our hands…and why is it in the form it is in.  I hope that by communicating some of my enthusiasm about this I might be able to get you to think and even study some more of this so I want to just give you a glimpse into this world of looking at the sources of our Biblical Text.  One from the Hebrew Bible and one from our own Christian Scriptures we call the New Testament:

Isn’t that a beautiful thing?  Don’t worry you’ll have a copy of it on the handout I will give out at the end so you can meditate upon it later….

The Four Source Hypothesis or Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis is a way of considering how the First Five books of the Bible came to be in the form we have now.  This group of books known as the Pentateuch or Torah or the Books of Moses (though that’s not a great description)

We have these five books which are actually, if we could read Hebrew, quite different.  In some parts of the book they quite obviously use the name Jaweh (YHWH) or Jehovah it is translated to refer to God.  This is the ‘J’ tradition or source.  In some parts the term Elohim or ‘God of Hosts’ is the preferred reference – this is the ‘E’ source.  In some of the Pentateuch we have a focus on the ritualistic and temple based life of the Jewish Faith (even though there’s not actually a temple in these books) which is often called ‘Priestly’ or ‘P’ tradition and lastly there seems to have been a fair amount of editing and the later addition of the book of Deuteronomy which has been done by someone or someone’s involved in the later life of the Temple and this is the ‘D’ source. 

It’s by no means an exact science and all of these things are mixed up.  It does help us consider the complex structure of just one bit of our Bibles, though, and to perhaps glimpse some of the motivation for recording particular bits of tradition, story, belief or ritual we find in those first five books.  Of course all of this isn’t quite so neat as, on the whole, what these writers did was preserve and edit an oral tradition that had been carefully handed down over centuries.  Though the content of Scripture goes back many hundreds of years, millions if we go right back to Creation, the written form of Scripture didn’t appear until, we think, 900 BCE and without universal literacy – or even basic literacy in most cases – things were transmitted by oral tradition over many centuries, word for word until recorded later.

These five books were edited very carefully together over many hundreds of years.  Though we call them the books of Moses it is a bit of a stretch to think that Moses wrote them all – partly because the sources of them come from all over the place, and were passed down and compiled, partly because there is reference to the life of a temple which Moses hadn’t dreamt of let alone seen, and partly because in those books we have the recording of the death of Moses.  What these books offer is a broad vision of God at work in the history of Israel over hundreds, thousands of years, and (in my understanding) the Spirit at work bringing together and weaving all these disparate parts to make the story of salvation clearer for us.

Let’s look at a simple example.  Have a quick look at Genesis 1& 2

Can you spot the join?

Did you notice anything about the difference between Chapter 1v1-2v3 and 2v4 and what follows?

They are two different stories of creation in different orders.  In the first one Humanity comes last in the order of creation, in the second humankind arrives quite early on in the process.  They come from two different sources and whilst one is very much a hymn to the creator with a repeated refrain ‘and there was evening and there was morning’…. The other is much more concerned with human involvement in the created order and the reason behind the creation of man and woman.

We can do something similar with the New Testament too.  Again as an example I want to show you something which I hope will start a process rather than give you definitive answers…

We have four books we call Gospels.  Bible Scholars used to think they were a unique form of literature, but study in the last 20 years has come to a conclusion that the Gospels share a form with a genre called ‘Heroic bibliography’ but that’s a distraction… We can talk about that another time if you wish….

Three of our Gospels, Matthew Mark and Luke, have much in common – they share stories, approaches, some passages seem almost identical, some are very different.  The fourth Gospel, John, is quite noticeably different, the Greek is very precise and beautifully crafted, with a more ‘cosmic’ feel about it.  It is thought that John’s Gospel has, at least in part, the aim of contradicting some of the Greek based ‘heresies’ that were springing up in the early Church and uses similar language and imagery to what was called ‘Gnosticism’ whilst refuting the elitist and dualistic beliefs of the Gnostics.

The other three have so much in Common they are known as synoptic Gospels ‘syn’ meaning same or similar and ‘optic’ meaning seeing.  They see the same way.  But why such similarities and why the differences.

Simple viewpoint – Mark comes first, Matthew next, borrowing from Mark and Luke next borrowing from both.  Plus both add their own stories.  I should say that by using the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John I am not actually definitively saying who wrote them, but their different attributions given by the early Church.  The authorship of these would be an evening, or a number of evenings, in their own right…

Anyway, with the documents we have it seems likely that Mark came first, the shortest Gospel and one from which both Matthew and Luke seem to draw heavily.  Yet there are also things that Matthew and Luke seem to share that aren’t in Mark, so another source – from the German ‘Quelle’ meaning (imaginatively) source comes in.  Quelle gives both Matthew and Luke material which they use in their own way, sometimes almost identically sometimes very differently.

And there are even more variations on this theory – with other sources unique to each Gospel writer.  Or set of writers, as it is thought that some of the Gospels were compiled by communities rather than written by individuals.

Anyway we can get more complicated, and more complicated as you want – and though it might seem like getting a bit fiddly for the sake of it, actually considering the content of the Gospels and the way in which the writers wrote can add depth to our understanding of these wonderful books…

For instance Mark is shorter, the language full of urgency, the Greek not so carefully constructed.  The book is still very carefully put together but he motivation seems to get the message out there quickly before Jesus comes back and to give more and more people the chance to know Jesus….

Matthew has a lot to do with Israel, and Jesus is very much the Jewish Messiah or king, the roaring lion of Judah come to reclaim the Jewish people and to renew God’s chosen race in order that they may bring all people back to God.

Luke is a gentile-friendly text, seeking to bring out the truth to those who aren’t Jewish.  He often explains Jewish traditions so that outsiders will understand.

And I did a bit about John earlier….

The purpose of all of this is not to try and impress upon you how very clever I am for remembering my undergraduate Biblical studies but because knowing more of our Bibles means we can see the wonder of the way all these strands weave together.  We have Gospels that meet different needs, for the intellect, for the Spirit, for the Jews, for the non Jews, we have a sense of urgency (Mark) and a sense of reflective meditation (John) and a if we were to spread this approach to all of our Scriptures then we would see hidden depths and be able to answer critics who talk about the Bible contradicting itself or being out of date or made up or whatever.  The Bible stands up to criticism and we shouldn’t be afraid to take it to bits in order to see something more of how it works… and so we can use it to put ourselves and our faith together….

I want to say a little bit more about how the Bible got to us before I tie all of this up….

First of all I mentioned  a little way back we have a Canon of Scripture… these are the books authorised to be included in the Bible and we believe, again through the work of the Holy Spirit, are the books which contain what we need to know God’s plan of salvation.  This Canon of Scripture was fixed pretty much by the end of the Fourth Century, but there has been some development and (as seems to be the way in the Church) some difference in the way different denominations treat different books.

The Church of England recognises what is known pretty much universally as the ‘Protestant Canon’ of the Bible – the sixty six books.  We give these books, since the 39 articles in 1563 a certain authority in life and doctrine and the ordering of our faith.  There are other books which are given various levels of authority in different traditions which we call the apocrypha or Deutero-Canonical books.  These books are considered to have value in teaching us, and contain many passages and ideas that will be familiar to us, but are not considered to have the full authority of the other books of the Bible.

I could spend a long time talking about the way in which books were included and excluded by the councils and Bishops of the Church and how later people like Martin Luther didn’t like the letter of James so never used it…. But that’s the kind of thing that I recommend you go and study yourself, cos it is surprisingly fascinating….

My last thought is to do with the way in which the Bible has made its way from it’s original languages to the English translation we have.  I could again run a whole course on this – but it might be as well to give you a handout…

Of course it doesn’t give the story of just how much went into this story – suffering, division and pain –for those such as Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale and others who were willing to give their lives in order that the Bible might be available to people in a language that they could understand.  Even going way back into the depths of Church history we can see division and disagreement over the what went into the canon of Scripture and what should stay out.

But in the end we have all this history that gives us this wonderful book, this library of faith.  For those of us who know God and long to know God more we have a great gift which allows us to seek God in the pages of this word.  Knowing where it came from and why it was put down as it has been can add to our own discernment and awareness of the ways in which God works with and alongside human beings.

And in case you want a quick summary of the Bible, just to take away with you – here’s the Bible in a minute

 Archbishop Rowan Williams said this, which I am going to finish my thoughts with…

I believe that the Bible tells us what we could not otherwise know: it tells us that God, the maker of the world, is committed to that world, and desires with all his being to save it from disaster and the imprisonment of sin; that he does this by calling a people to witness to him by their prayers and their actions, in obedience to what he shows them of his will through the Law; that he brings this work to completion when God the eternal Son, the eternal Word, becomes human as Jesus of Nazareth, and offers his life to destroy or to “soak up”, as you might say, the terrible consequences of our sin; and that Jesus is raised from the tomb to call a new people together in the power of the Spirit, who will show what kind of God God is in the quality of their life together and their relation with him. This is revealed in the acts of God in history, and it is once and for all set out in the Bible. There is no going round this or behind it.

THIS IS the world of the Bible into which the Church has to be brought again and again.

Christians have to be in the habit of looking into Scripture to find where they are failing to understand and trust the God of the Bible and living in such a way that no one outside the Church would guess what kind of God they served. Nowhere else do we find the questions of God put to us so authoritatively and directly.

To say that the Bible is inspired is to say at least that God’s Spirit comes to us through the text to call us to repent and be converted. Some would want to say further that we must also say certain things about the absolute accuracy of every detail in Scripture if we believe in inspiration. … But I can say with complete conviction that a Church that does not listen for God in the Bible, and treat the Bible as the unique touchstone of truth about God and about us is losing its identity, its raison d’ĂȘtre.