The most valuable thing this world affords
Given on Sunday 24th October 2010 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
I was giving a lecture at Sarum College in Salisbury last Tuesday evening, and was talking about how difficult it can be to find the right language in which to express our theological concepts. I chose as a simple example the word ‘Father’ as applied to God. It is a thoroughly biblical term, of course – Jesus uses it all the time – but for some people today it can be a difficult word. The reason is not hard to fathom. If your memories of your own father are uniformly negative; if the only model of fatherhood you have known has been a cruel or damaging one, then it is hard to use the word ‘Father’ of God without a shudder.
That obviously rang very loud bells with some of my audience, and the discussion which ensued was vigorous and challenging. And on the way home I fell to thinking about my own father, and how my attitude towards him changed many times over the years. For example, when I was very little, my father could do no wrong in my eyes. He was the best father in the world, and everything he said was always right, and I would punch anyone who said different. He could answer all my questions. He could mend my train set when it went wrong. He knew everything. But then, when I was a teenager, I saw him from a different perspective. He seemed so old, so out of touch and so utterly uncool. It was as though he were living in a different century. He couldn't do the simplest problems in my maths homework. He had the most old-fashioned ideas about when I should be home at night. He was incredibly stingy with money and, as for his political views; he made Attila the Hun look like a woolly Liberal.
But later on, when I had learned a bit more about the world, my view changed again. I began to see my father as a friend, as a man of long experience and mature wisdom, someone to respect and someone to rely on. As Mark Twain put it, ‘When I was fourteen I thought my father was an old fool. When I was twenty-one I was amazed what the old man had learned in seven years.’
It occurs to me that our attitudes to the Bible probably change in much the same way. When we were little, many of us were taught the chorus The best book to read is the Bible, and that everything in it is absolute, literal fact: ‘Gospel truth’. We knew that we should read the Bible every day, and believed that if we did it would help us with everything. But when we grew older, we became thoroughly bored with the dull old book. Our friends told us that it had been ‘disproved’ by science, and that the Ten Commandments were a waste of time. Increasingly we discovered parts of the Bible that we couldn’t help but disagree with. It all seemed a mixture of fairy tale and heavy morality, and we put the wretched tome back on the shelf to gather dust.
Today is Bible Sunday. I don't know why, but there it is. For many years it rested happily on the Second Sunday in Advent, but now the apparatchiks of the Liturgical Commission have moved it to the Last Sunday after Trinity. No matter. At least it has not been forgotten altogether. And Bible Sunday prompts the question: did we ever get the Bible off the shelf again, or is it still there mouldering away? Have we blown off the dust and read it once more? Have we grown into that maturity ourselves whereby we can see the Bible as a friend, as a story of divine wisdom and human experience, as something to respect and to rely upon?
I do hope that the Bible is not still collecting dust and cobwebs on your shelf, because I have a horrible feeling that, for all the modern translations which sell so well with their lavish photographs and pictures and clear modern English, the Bible is in fact being read less and less by some Christians today. And that is a tragedy. For although it does not give us - it does not pretend to give us - the latest scientific knowledge and technical data, it does offer us timeless and changeless insights into what it means to be a human being, and of God's way with men and women. For people still make love and go to war for the same motives and with the same passions as they did in the days of Moses or of King David. We still suffer anguish and know heartache just like the psalmist. We still know pain and fear and happiness and hope, just as the people did when they clustered around Jesus. And God, the Most High God, still loves us and cherishes us, yearns for us and weeps for us, sits with us in our sorrows and enters into our joys, as he did throughout all the biblical centuries.
There was a moment in the Coronation Service, immediately after the Queen had been crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, when the Moderator of the Church of Scotland presented a copy of the Bible to Her Majesty with these words: Receive this Book, the most valuable thing this world affords. This is the Royal Law. These are the lively oracles of God. And this Bible Sunday my plea is that we should all blow the dust off this most valuable thing, and read again the lively oracles of God. Perhaps we need to acquire a modern version or, if you prefer the Authorised Version, perhaps the time has come to admit that the type in your school Bible seems to have shrunk and you need something with larger print. The Abbey Shop can help you with both. Perhaps you would be helped by a scheme of readings or Bible notes, and the Shop can help you there too. Perhaps you might even want to talk to one of the clergy about your spiritual and devotional life, for that, after all, is what we are here for. But above all, read the Bible, read it carefully and prayerfully, and you will discover the most profound and permanent insights into the foundations of human living; you will discover how God deals with you and me; and in the words and the works of Christ you will discover the true and authentic picture of what God is like and what he has done for us.
Next year, 2011, will be the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised, or King James’, Version of the Bible. To help mark and celebrate that anniversary, I want 2011 to be the Year of the Bible in this Benefice. Yesterday morning I held a planning meeting at the Vicarage to discuss ways of doing that. All sorts of ideas have surfaced: exhibitions, lectures, study groups, musical events, Bible reading competitions, drama, art and much more. It is going to be exciting. If you would like to be involved in the planning, just let me know. But now is the time to start reading the Bible again.
There came a time when I was no longer bothered by the discovery that my parents weren’t infallible. I no longer worried that they did not know the answer to everything and that sometimes I disagreed with them. I learned that what is important about parents is not that they should be some kind of walking encyclopaedia, but people of love and wisdom, of laughter and tears, of comfort and encouragement. And that's what I find in the Bible, too: not dull, encyclopaedic facts about God, but the red-blooded story of his involvement in this one world, his laughter and his tears and his deep, deep love, and the story of men and women touched by the finger of God, whose touch has still its ancient power. And for that, thanks be to God.