Bible Sunday 2016:
Isaiah 45.22-end; Luke 4.16-24

A hundred years ago this year, more than a million men were wounded or killed in the Battle of the Somme. Fifty years ago last week, a hundred and sixteen children, their lives scarcely begun, were buried in Aberfan. And it goes on: the warfare we hear of every day being waged in Syria and Iraq is claiming the lives and future, not only of those fighting on either side, but also of countless civilians, caught in the crossfire, and among them the children. Sometimes it is difficult not to despair of the human race; sometimes it is tempting just to keep our heads down in the hope that the tide of tears will not reach our quiet corner of the world in our own lifetime. For after all, what can distant and powerless onlookers like you or I do?

On the radio yesterday morning, an American general argued that global terrorism would not be eliminated simply by the terrorists being defeated in the battles raging in Syria and Iraq, or even in the other unstable regions to which they might disperse. Winning the current battles, he said, was necessary and probably would succeed: but beyond that, to achieve relative peace and security in the near and longer term future, major investment would be needed in the economies and people of the Middle East and other unstable regions of the world - something like the Marshall Plan after the Second World War, which allowed Europe to rise again from the ashes of despair. And this, the general added, was going to be a very long haul: it certainly would not happen in his lifetime. Nor, I think, in most of our lifetimes either. If some of the more pessimistic pundits are right, probably most of us will be dead before even Brexit gets sorted. So again, when there seems so little you or I can do, what sense can we make of it all?

Today is what the Church marks as Bible Sunday. For many people around us today, the Bible, if they think of it at all, seems irrelevant: some celebrities now are even declining to have a copy on Desert Island Discs. To many people, the Bible has been discredited by Christians who claim that because the Bible is the Word of God, all the events that are recorded in it must have happened historically, and whatever the Bible says God commands, must be commanded by God. That view perhaps was understandable five hundred years ago, when Protestants, who rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, needed to replace that with the authority of the Bible. But modern scientific thinking, including historical study of the Scriptures, has made it clear that the Bible records not only events which seem physically impossible, but also others which are mutually incompatible: the different accounts of the Creation in Genesis, for example, or of the Resurrection in the Gospels. Many of the things too, that God is said in the Bible to command, contradict one another; and when some Christians in the past tried to defend what they believed the Bible said, against Galileo, for example, or Darwin, or women bishops or same-sex marriage, they in the end usually lost the argument.

Not very encouraging thoughts for Bible Sunday. But actually it's a bit more complicated. What some Christians in the past tried to defend, against Galileo, or Darwin, or women bishops or same-sex marriage often was simply a selection of biblical texts which could be interpreted to back up their own prejudices, rather than what the Bible as a whole had to say on the matter, which sometimes was almost nothing, and sometimes many different and even incompatible things.

But is that the right way to read the Bible? The Lakeland poet Coleridge, who was also a profound philosopher and theologian, once remarked that such attempts to say that everything in the Bible was literally the Word of God, dictated word for word by God, was a great misunderstanding of what it means to say that the Bible was and is inspired by God. The many different books of the Bible, written by many different writers in many different circumstances, each in their own distinctive way, Coleridge believed, were all inspired by God: but the evidence that they were inspired is not that they are to be found in the Bible and so must be inspired. It is rather that across the ages, again and again, people have found inspiration in the Bible. For his own part, Coleridge said, in the Bible he had found 'words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs'. If you read the Bible not because it is a sacred book, but as you would 'any other body of ancient writings', he urged, you will soon discover 'the proof of its divine authority in its fitness to our nature and needs'.

The fitness to our human nature and needs of what we may find in the Bible is illustrated, I think, by hearing our two readings this morning against the background of what I was saying earlier about trying to make sense of all the tragedy and pity in the world around us, the hopes for peace and justice that can only be realised long after we are gone, and the little we may feel we ourselves can do. To hear what the Bible can say about this, we need to remember that the people who wrote the Old and New Testaments lived and thought in ways often very strange to us, but also that they were trying, like us, to make sense of the tragedy and pity in the world around them.

The writer of our first reading, perhaps the prophet Isaiah himself, lived at a time when the Jewish people were dominated by powerful empires, defeated, and most of them deported to Babylon about 50 miles south of Baghdad in today's Iraq: there seemed little hope that they would ever return to their home in Jerusalem. During that time of exile, much of what we now know as the Old Testament was compiled from ancient myths and legends and some more recent history into a story that would inspire the Jewish people, not only until their eventual return to Jerusalem, but even after its later destruction by the Romans, and ever since. And at the heart of this story was their conviction that the invisible living presence they hardly dared to call God, whose ways were not their ways, would bring meaning out of meaninglessness, good out of evil, and not for them only, but for all peoples: 'Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!' Isaiah proclaims.

Our second reading, from Luke's gospel, continues the same story. Not from exile in Babylon, but from the tragedy of Jesus' defeat on the cross, new hope arose: the real presence of his Spirit deeply sensed as alive among the first Christians, was as difficult for them to make common sense of as was Israel's LORD, whose ways were not their ways. But that it did make sense, that it did bring meaning out of meaninglessness, good out of evil, especially for the poor and oppressed, as Jesus' words from his distantly remembered synagogue sermon proclaimed - that was what inspired them, and has inspired countless poor and oppressed human beings ever since. 'Today' Jesus said, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing': this scripture, Isaiah's promise that, despite everything, the Word of God's forgiveness and faithfulness is not only good, but also true, the living truth of all that is.

Can we prove it? Not by intellectual argument certainly: the good news can be proved only on the pulses of our living, loving, praying and forgiving. In the end, each of us has to choose whether or not to hear and trust the good news of God's goodness; and it is a choice we have to make not once for all, but every day, every hour, every moment, to turn our faces to the light or to the darkness, to hope or to indifference. The today Jesus spoke of in Nazareth is every day. And it is this, that can make sense too of hopes for peace and justice that can be achieved only long after we are gone, for it does not all depend on us, or soldiers and peacemakers or governments: if the good news is true, God is already present and active in infinite ways of which we have no conception - 'for Christ plays in ten thousand places/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of man's faces.'

And so perhaps for us also there is reason - the heart's reason which reason knows nothing of - reason for hope, not only for the peace and justice we shall not live to see, but even for our part in it. Let me end not with the Bible, but another book. In the final chapter of The Shepherd's Life, James Rebanks writes about his feelings when 'working up these mountains'.

There is a thrill in the timelessness up there. I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time… Perhaps, in a hundred years' time, no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains. They won't know my name. But that doesn't matter. If they stand on that fell and do the things we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those that came before a debt for getting it thus far.

Well, I think there could be no better description also of what we are doing here in this church this morning: 'carrying on something bigger' than us, 'something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time' - back to those historically inaccessible but spiritually essential days of Jesus' earthly life and that of the early church, of Isaiah and of Israel in Babylon. In the end, the last word is with God, and today the Scripture is fulfilled in our hearing as we now hear and obey Christ's command: 'Do this, in remembrance of me'.