Today is Bible Sunday. The day on which we give thanks for the writings of Scripture and the enlightenment they can bring. Whenever I hear mention of Bible Sunday, I am taken back to childhood and that hymn which reads God has given us a book full of stories which was made for his people of old – it begins with a tale of a garden and ends with city of gold. Dated perhaps but very descriptive and obviously long remembered.
Today’s gospel reading is certainly a good story – told by Saint Luke in his best story telling manner. The return of Jesus to Nazareth early in his ministry. As I read it, I was taken back 25 years in time to the day when I first stood in the pulpit at Christ Church to preach.
Oh, I had led and talked at children’s services – but from the chancel steps. I’d read lessons at the lectern, lead intercessions and even taken part in a choir rendition of Olivet to Calvary from the pulpit. But I had never preached from there. I was terrified.
In the preceding days and even on the morning, I had been frightened by the responsibility, afraid of getting it wrong, afraid of letting down God and the congregation. No wonder my knees shook.
I was nearly at the end of my Reader training. I had spent time in another parish and preached there. But this was the first time I stood here before people who knew me, some of them for years and years. People who had seen me in entirely different settings. And if I made a mess of it I couldn’t run away. It was my home church. I was coming amongst friends, with my church family in an entirely new capacity.
I came back into that church as a Reader, still a lay person, but wearing a new uniform. And I thought: “Who am I to be doing this” and wondered how people would react. Would they say: “Oh it’s Alan Spencer’s wife.” Or even: “she’s the woman with the grey hair who shouts a lot” as I was once described by a child when I was producing the church pantomime. “Who does she think she is?”
In the beginning
Jesus too, returned to his people, to his home town of Nazareth near to the beginning of his ministry. Let me make it clear I am making no parallels between the people, (Jesus and me) only the situation.
Saint Luke places the incident right at the start of Christ’s ministry, immediately after the temptation. Saint Mark places it after Jesus had taught, preached and healed around the country. What he had been doing would be well known to the people in his home town.
He went to the synagogue as was his custom. We learn that he was a regular worshipper. He stood and was handed the scrolls and read the scriptures And Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind
To set free those who are oppressed
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Then Jesus sat down, as was the custom for the Rabbi, to teach after reading the scriptures.
Then he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I should imagine there was an ominous silence.
The people were amazed and said isn’t this Joseph’s son? We don’t know how they said it. Was it Isn’t that Joseph’s son in amazement and pride or was is Isn’t that Joseph’s son – nothing but a carpenter’s lad. I suppose there would be some of both.
For Jesus to imply he is the fulfilment of God’s promise would be astonishing. So, it is hardly surprising that those who had known him from childhood found the situation bewildering. Yet it is not they who say Physician heal thyself – but Christ who says – are you not going to say this to me. A more literal translation is actually similar to our proverb charity begins at home. He knew they would want him to perform the miracles he had done in other places right there in Nazareth. His response, that no prophet is accepted in his own town – was another reminder of the Scriptures – of the way Israel had rejected the prophets of olden times failing to listen to them as they spoke the words received from God.
Our reading stopped there but in the following verses, Christ reminds them of the words contained in scriptures from the story of Elijah. Jesus used the words of the Scriptures to teach and explain, but the people did not like what they heard and drove Jesus out of Nazareth. He was rejected by his own.
I am very grateful that the outcome of my coming in a new capacity, into the church community at Walmersley, a community which knew me warts and all ,did not mean that I had to leave town. Instead it has been followed by a joyful, eventful if at times demanding period of my life.
I have been fortunate in the amount of encouragement I have received for over 25 years from members of that congregation and more recently from the congregation here. There has been practical help from so many people, proof reading my writings, playing the sound effects in my sermons, preventing me making too many mistakes. And as well I have received pastoral support through those who have provided a listening ear and spiritual support through prayer.
Weak and strong
Saint Paul, in our second reading, states what a Christian congregation should be like, telling them that the strong should bear with the weak. I am not happy about dividing people into the weak and the strong. At times each one of us may be strong, at others we are weak. But at the times when we are struggling, learning, suffering, then others who at that time are strong, confident and able should provide help and encouragement. I have found that to be very true in the congregations of our benefice.
Saint Paul also tells us that a Christian fellowship should be characterised by praise, by hope, by harmony and by fortitude or steadfastness. Do we find those characteristics here and at Christ Church? Not all the time – because we are human – and because we are sinful. But they are there – here amongst us.
We are here today, praising God. We have hope in Christ for the future, we can and do work together in harmony. Oh yes, we may have our differences, our disagreements, our different likes and dislikes, but I have found a great deal of strength in belonging to a community which has a shared purpose and concerns. And we have fortitude. I only have to look at those members of these congregations who have been worshipping here and at Christ Church for many, many years to recognise fortitude.
Sometimes we are very good at looking at our failings, at the things that go wrong, and it is right that we should. But we should not forget the strengths within our fellowship, and rejoice in them.
Value of scripture
Saint Paul puts one characteristic before all these. He emphasises the value of scriptures to a Christian fellowship. In them is to be found enlightenment and encouragement, encouragement from God. Encouragement to create the type of fellowship modelled on the life of Jesus. Praising God, putting other first, caring just as Jesus did.. The scriptures form the basis for our Christian lives, they are the blueprint to follow.
We have a relatively new television which, as my Mum would say, can plait sawdust – it has far too many possibilities and the screen is difficult to read for elderly people with declining eyesight, especially when they have to get on their knees to see the buttons on the BT box.
We had a problem – we couldn’t find all those old episodes of Maigret that Alan had recorded! A disaster. I rang my soon to be son-in-law to ask for assistance. Very patiently he helped me. Have you got the instruction book that came with the BT box? “I thinks so.” “Do you know where it is?” “ Um …not sure.” “Have you read the instruction book?” He asked. “No” I said “I’m a teacher, they never read instruction books.” I will not tell you what he said but together with the aid of the manual retrieved from the back of a cupboard, we found the recordings. Disaster avoided.
The flipping manual
I recounted this story to my younger daughter. And after the laughter had died down, she said “Well Mum, you know what I told you about my instructions to people in my team at work with new appliances. RTFM – Read the Flipping manual. That’s it RTFM Read the flipping manual”.
The Bible is the Christian’s manual – old testament scriptures were Jesus’s manual.
How often do we use them as I used my TV manual – forgetting about them until we have a problem and being unable to find a solution anywhere else. If we read the Scriptures regularly, are more familiar with their contents, then we would find the problems easier to solve and may never even encounter them in the first place.
Light to my path
The psalmist says that the word of God is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.. How much do we need that.
To sustain us as individuals, and to sustain us as a church fellowship, increasing our faith, knowing our Lord, living in hope, finding fortitude, supporting the weak and worshipping Christ, Saint Paul’s message is clear – RTFM. Read the flipping manual.
This Bible Sunday, let us pray that we may take encouragement, find enlightenment and purpose through the teachings of the Bible that our faith may be deeper and our service more loving.
‘Bible Sunday – read the flipping manual’ was preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark’s Bury. It was based on Luke 4:16-24 and Romans 15:1-6.