Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Why & How should I read the Bible?

This was the talk I gave for Alpha at St George's Church, February 2015.

Why and How should I read the Bible?

Hi, my name is Emily, I’m a mum to three children ranging from five and a half months to almost five years old (you may be thinking how is that possible when I still look about 12, but assumptions are dangerous things)!  I moved up to Leeds about three and a half years ago when my husband got a job working here at St George’s.  In addition to being a mummy, I sometimes paint and people give me some money for it so I suppose I’m an ‘artiste’ but I still find saying that a bit strange!

I was a bit taken aback when Chris asked if I would speak at this session in Alpha – Why and How should we read the Bible?  My mum’s response was “and… when was the last time you actually read your Bible…?”  little bit rude! But, in the interest of being upfront I want to put out a disclaimer that no, I am not the finished article of exemplar Christianness, I don’t read my Bible every day (more about that later)… but I wish I did.  I believe the words written in this book are so important that I will only paint commissions which have scripture written on them and have even turned down requests when people ask me to paint pictures with quotes or other words that are not found in the Bible.

So what’s the big deal with the Bible?  I grew up in a Christian home and so went to Sunday School at church each week.  I will never forget one particular morning when my youth leader, a crazy Welsh lady named Gaynor, told us about her experiences of Bible smuggling.  At eleven years old, something about what she shared stayed with me and made me want to know more about this book that people were prepared to risk their lives for.

Gaynor was part of a group of people who were smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union.  They had an old VW camper van, guys in their church made it road-worthy and they were on their way.  They had to stop off at a remote farm house in Austria to pick up the Russian Bibles.  After successfully making it through the Russian customs they got to the Russian border late at night where they had to drive their vehicle over an inspection pit so the guards could look under the van.  They were stopped, door panels ripped off, the van was gutted as they searched everywhere and suffice to say the Bibles were found.  Gaynor and her friends were taken inside a building.  Her concern at this point was she had some information taped to her tummy that was intended for the secret believers they were to meet.  She managed to peel it off her body and get it flushed down the toilet by another friend who asked to go to the loo.  Shortly after that, they were strip searched.  Gaynor and her friends thanked God that no information was found that would have endangered the lives of Russian Christians. 

When I asked Gaynor about this story recently, she said “The trip was wonderful and even though we had lost the Bibles, we knew they would find their way via a black market into the hands of Christians, albeit for a month’s wages.  When the guards found the Bibles, they had exclaimed, ‘Ah Gold!’”

Why were the Russian Christians prepared to risk their lives to receive a Bible?  Why were the guards so sure that they had something so valuable?  To many today, the Bible is seen as a pretty out of date, dull rulebook.  Perhaps full of contradictions, written for people in a different time and culture – certainly irrelevant to our lives today.  So what’s so special that people are prepared to die in order to get hold of a Bible in their own language?

Firstly, the Bible is uniquely popular.  

It is the most successful literary creation ever, more influential than Shakespeare or any other great texts.  It’s completely international.  The Greek philosopher Homer has been translated into forty languages, Shakespeare into sixty, Harry Potter into sixty-seven languages.  The Bible?  The Bible has been translated into 2,333 – ten times more than any other book.  It’s every publisher’s dream, it is the world’s bestseller and continues to be the biggest-selling book annually with forty-four million copies sold every year.

Ghandi said this of the Bible, “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”

So, in addition to the Bible being uniquely popular, it is also uniquely powerful.  It has the power to change individuals and it has the power to change societies.  And, it’s also uniquely precious.  The Psalmist says of the Scriptures that they are “more precious than gold”, something the Russian Guards recognised when they found the Bibles.  Even the Queen at her coronation was handed a Bible with these words, “We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.”  Why is that?

If you look with me at Matthew chapter 4, verse 4 which is in your booklets, Jesus said this:

“It is written, ‘People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

Jesus is asking us to consider whether material things alone can satisfy us.  As well as a physical hunger, we also have a spiritual hunger which can only be satisfied by spiritual things.  It’s a kind of longing for God that is in every human heart, longing for a relationship with our Creator.  Jesus says, people can’t live on bread alone, but every word… this spiritual hunger can be satisfied by Jesus, and by his word.  The Greek word used here literally means communication is continually coming out of the mouth of God, like a stream pouring forth.  God is longing to communicate with us, to be in a relationship with us and his primary method of speaking to us is His word, the Bible.

So the first claim that Christians make here, is that the Bible brings revelation about who God isI think in the very first week of Alpha you looked at how Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.  Well, the main way we know about Jesus is through the written revelation of God, the Bible.
People talk about how different things point them to God – maybe a beautiful piece of music, orthe complexities of science.

About ten years ago I went to New Zealand for a couple of weeks.  Whilst there I went skiing, glacier hiking, helicopter riding, fiord sailing, and even skydiving.  As I jumped out of that plane at 15,000 feet with over 60 seconds of freefall, I had to travel through the clouds before seeing the landscape below.  On the video, as I come through the clouds, you can see me exclaim “wow”.  It took my breath away.  There were beaches and the sea to one side, mountains in a different direction, you could see glaciers and just the biggest expanse of awesome creation laid out below.  The Psalmist says, “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”  The beauty and intelligibility of the universe points to a Creator.  But even this is not enough, we need the Bible.

2 Timothy chapter 3, verse 16 says this:“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that God’s servant may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”.

The word translated ‘God-breathed’ is the literal translation of the Greek ‘theo-new-stos’ “God… breathed…”  What the writer is saying is that the Bible is God speaking.  Over a period of 1500 years at least forty authors – kings, scholars, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, historians, doctors – wrote different types of literature such as history, poetry, prophecy, letters… The writer is not saying that God dictated the Bible, it’s 100 percent the work of human beings.  But that it’s also 100 percent inspired by God.  How can we test this?  We can read it for ourselves.  There is good evidence to believe the Bible has been well preserved and not corrupted.This verse also says that the Bible is the supreme authority for teaching.  It is our authority for how we act, for finding out what is wrong in God’s eyes and what is right, how to successfully live in a relationship with God and with other people.  How to conduct our lives, how to make tough decisions… It is FULL of practical advice and wisdom.  We all need help with our thinking.  The Bible shows us a bigger picture, the Bible gives us purpose and direction.So the Bible is uniquely popular, precious and powerful.  God has spoken and used the Bible to bring revelation, but the second point is this.  God is still speaking.  God still speaks today.  He is not a dead God.  He is not a God for the past.  He is a God for the here and now, a God for the future.  A God who wants to be in relationship with you, walk with you, share with you, journey with you, do life with you and life to the full.

Christianity is all about relationship.  It’s not about rules and religious observance, but relationship.  The Bible is God’s way of speaking to us today.  We can so easily make assumptions about our own lives and the circumstances that we find ourselves in, but when we go back to the Bible it gives us a bigger perspective, it shows us God’s heart, it anchors you and tells you “this is the truth, this is the way”.  It’s why Christians seek to read their Bibles daily, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to them afresh.  Martin Luther said “The Bible is alive.  It speaks to me.  It has feet, it runs after me.  It has hands, it lays hold of me”.  The Bible is known as the ‘living word’.  This is why I want my paintings to have Bible verses on them – because it’s not just old dead words, it’s personal and relevant, it’s freedom and life, it’s truth.
The absolute hands-down best Christmas card I received this year was this one…

It has luminous stickers saying ‘traders wanted’, it is an old re-used bit of card, the spelling isn’t correct… but that’s not why it’s special.  It’s valuable and special because of who wrote it.  My little boy, at school, one day, by himself went to the writing area and was thinking about me.  He was thinking about me and so wrote me a Christmas card.  “To mum, lots of love from Ethan”.  I expect I will treasure this card for many years to come… not because of the card itself, the paper it’s written on, but because the author loves me and created this message just for me.  My relationship is not with the card, but with the person who sent it.  The Bible is like this Christmas card.  It is God’s love letter to us.  We can draw close with God in intimacy not with the words on the page, but with the person who spoke them.  John 5:39 says “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me [Jesus says], yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
This is about a person who has lived, a person we can know today.  Communication is vital to any relationship.  God can speak directly into our lives and situations through the Bible.  However desperate we might be, or however humdrum our lives might be, God can speak.  Communication is vital for every relationship and as we study the Bible we can come into contact with Jesus.  Rick Warren, an American Pastor, has written that “reading the Bible generates life, it produces change, it heals hurts, it builds character, it transforms circumstances, it imparts joy, it overcomes adversity, it defeats temptation, it infuses hope, it releases power, it cleanses the mind.”  It’s spiritual food.
So how do we do this practically?
Time.  Place.  Method.

Most people find it helpful to set aside a regular time – it doesn’t matter when, little and often works well.  When I was a student, I found just before going to bed, winding down from the day, thinking about what the next day would bring was a great time.  I then married a night owl who only opens up when it’s bed time and so if I wanted to be able to talk to him I had to seize that opportunity… which meant that a new Bible reading time had to be found.  The time doesn’t have to be the same time for the rest of your life.  It’s not about rules and religion, it’s about relationship… most people find that a set time just facilitates the habit of reading their Bible to further their relationship with God.

Jesus would find ‘a solitary place’ to pray.  That’s not always possible.  This is a picture of my kitchen.  Right now you’re all making assumptions about my life based on this.  Well… ha!  Only kidding, that was how it was when we moved in.  This is the reality of my kitchen at the moment.  Solitary?  Not really, but even in the midst of the craziness and busyness there, I can still read my Bible, I can still meet with God, I can still talk to Jesus.  I have a blackboard in my kitchen purely to write out Bible verses on… so that on those days when actually the baby is crying, kids are pulling at me and my cup of tea has been reheated five times I can still connect with God’s word.  Knowing that I was going to be having a baby and entering a season of mental sleep patterns, I specifically wrote out some verses that would encourage me and remind me that I can trust Jesus that God has got this whole ‘parenting thing’ down and that I’m not doing it on my own. 

So it’s helpful to try and set aside a regular time and place, but then what do you do when you’re actually sat there?!  It’s pretty simple really, ask God to help you.  Ask God to speak to you, in the Old Testament a little boy said “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”.  Read the passage.  And then just ask the questions – What does it say?  What does it mean?  And how does this apply to my life?  How is God speaking to me today?  And then, respond in prayer.  It’s a relationship, it’s two-way communication.  Some people like to have a journal or a notepad and paper to hand while they read the Bible – either so that the can note down any distractions that pop into their head (oh I must post that, need to buy more milk…) or so they can write down what they think God might be saying, or write out their response in prayer to God.  

So I talked about how God speaks to us still today, and I also mentioned that I have a young baby.  I am a touch sleep deprived at the moment.  I am a touch hormonal at the moment.  I am a touch at breaking point at the moment.  I had been struggling to find a time to read my Bible, I had been struggling to connect with Jesus and felt far away from God, I felt overwhelmed by life, overwhelmed by the demands of three small children and a never-ending to-do list.  In the midst of a particularly emotional moment recently, I found myself reading the book of Acts.  Now I have read the whole Bible cover to cover more than once, and I have read the book of Acts several times.  But this time, I was reading it, and I came across this verse like I had never even noticed it before.  And it said this:

“Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah.”

Times of refreshment.  From the presence of the Lord.  He’ll send Jesus.  Yes please.  Sign me up.

The Bible is a world-changing, challenging, at times difficult but powerful life-invading book.  God has spoken and he wants to speak to you today.  If you’ve never read the Bible before then a really good place to start would be one of the Gospel books about Jesus’ life – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  It would take probably 2 hours tops to read through one in one sitting.  I said right at the very beginning of talking tonight that ‘assumptions are dangerous things’.

You may have heard the following before, in which case, sorry, but if not,

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.
Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a Collision.
Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States' Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that's one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Whether true or not, the story illustrates that it is easy to make assumptions.  Chris and I are good family friends, I’d never met him before three years ago and now he and his wife are godparents to one of my children, but to look at us, it would be easy to assume that a whopping great big northern bloke and a teeny soft southerner wouldn’t necessarily get on.

We make assumptions based on what things look like (like the picture of my kitchen).  We make assumptions based on things other people have said.  We make assumptions based on all sorts of things and my point I hear you ask?!  Each of us here, myself included, will have made assumptions about God.  We will have assumed things about Jesus – either positive or negative – based on all sorts of influences.  Assumptions can be misleading, assumptions can be dangerous things.  I challenge you to get to know Jesus for yourself.  I challenge you not to rely on your assumptions, not to rely on what you think you know about the Bible, but to actually pick one up and get reading.

Let’s pray.

Father God, thank you that not only have you spoken through the Bible, but you still speak to us today through this book.  And Lord, I pray that every one of us would lay our assumptions aside and find a pattern in our lives of reading your life-giving, life-changing Word.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.