October 29th – Bible Sunday
I wonder what you first think when you hear the Bible being read in church Sunday by Sunday. If we are honest, I suspect that our first thought is often not of the content, but of the delivery – we might wish that the reader had stood a little closer to the microphone or angled it better for their height. We might also realise that – as we are all different, we all have different styles of reading – some faster, some slower. Many people take the trouble to check through the different translations to see which one they feel brings out the meaning most clearly, others stick to their preferred translation or to the one from the lectionary that has been emailed out to them.
These things can distract us a little from the content of the reading and we can miss a part of what is being read to us. That can be a problem, since as Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading today, his words will not pass away until he comes again, and in the meantime, the guidance we have, and the only – fairly contemporary accounts of his actions and words can only be found in our Bibles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help our understanding of them.
It is interesting to note that we are not the only ones who have needed help in understanding what is in the Bible. As Ezra the scribe read from the whole of the Hebrew scriptures – probably the books that we have as the first five books of our Bibles – there were people giving explanations as they went along. If you have time, the book of Nehemiah is worth reading – it tells of how Nehemiah, who held a high position in the court, obtained permission from the king to return to Jerusalem and organise the rebuilding of the city walls after he had heard that the whole place was in ruins. The book of Ezra, which is roughly contemporary is a more difficult read, and often seems to contain an official report of the rebuilding of the temple. In both cases there was strong opposition to the work, but support from the Assyrian kings who provided supplies for the building work as well as soldiers to safeguard the journey back to Jerusalem. All the precious objects from the sanctuary were recorded and weighed, and were also returned, although there is no mention of the books of the law in the list, so we can only assume that the priests had kept them safe. The Assyrian kings probably didn’t consider the scrolls to be valuable in the same way that the gold and silver vessels were. This would explain how Ezra is described as having studied the scriptures and knowing them well despite being held captive in exile – something he could not have done without ready access to them.
At the point where our reading today commences, the building work is pretty much completed – the temple has been rebuilt and regular sacrifices and festivals are being observed again, and the walls of the city have been rebuilt. It is a good time to remind the people of their story back as far as Abraham or even further, and to remind them of the law that was given to Moses while they were in the desert after fleeing from Egypt.
Their reaction to hearing the scriptures again seems to have been one of extreme emotion. They were being reminded once again of how they became a nation, of all that God had done for them over the centuries. It seems that their first reaction was to weep – whether with joy or sorrow we do not know. Whichever it was, they were encouraged by their leaders not to weep but to celebrate – the day was a holy one, and it was time for a party! The instructions were clear – eat the best food, and make sure that everyone has plenty. The ability to read and understand the Bible is to be celebrated. It was a great joy to me when the Churches Together organised the funds to provide Bibles for our primary school in age-appropriate formats to support the teaching of RE in that school. Many of you were very generous in supporting that effort.
As we are celebrating Bible Sunday, it seems appropriate to look at the work of the Bible Society. Many of you will know the story of Mary Jones which I read as a child, who walked 26 miles to Bala where she had heard that a Bible in her native Welsh could be obtained. Her determination inspired the work of translation so that everyone who wished should have access to the Bible in their native language.
Nowadays the work of the Bible Society continues, nearly 220 years after it was founded, and it now has the whole Bible translated into over 700 languages, making it accessible to 5.7 billion people, or over 80% of the world’s population. This milestone was reached in 2020 and means that the number of languages has almost doubled since 1990 when it was 351. In 50 of these languages the translations are the first ever made, meaning 57 million more people can access the whole of God’s word in their mother tongue for the first time. One of the most recent translations to be completed is into the Mohawk language. This is the fulfilment of a lifetime dream for Harvey Satewas Gabriel. Harvey was a member of the translation team and is now 83. He says ‘When I do something, I don’t give up easy,’ This full translation has come 219 years after the Gospel of John was first translated in 1804 and was the first scripture translated by the Bible Society! Much of the early translation work was done by Harvey’s grandfather and great-grandfather as part of the team, but Harvey himself completed the 58 books that remained untranslated when he retired in 2005 and was able to work on them full time. Canadian Bible Society’s president, Dr Rupen Das, said: ‘God speaks through his word, but how can people hear if it’s not in a language they value and appreciate?’ I wonder how we would feel if the only way we could read the Bible would be in a language that was not our own first language?
In addition, the Digital Bible Library, set up to enable hundreds of millions of people to access Scripture through websites and apps, has recently reached the milestone of bringing together 2,500 texts in 1,622 languages used by over 5.7 billion people. It is the very useful way that I am able to carry an assortment of Bibles around in the pocket of my jeans!
Currently the work is focussing largely on the conflict in Israel, where teams are providing practical support in the form of items that may have been lost – often as basic as soap or socks, torches or blankets, but also emotional and spiritual help through the society’s trauma healing programme. The Bible is at the heart of this work, and people are offered a whole or part Bible or a portion of scripture, depending upon their openness and readiness as a part of the work.
These are most definitely causes for celebration, until you realise that there are an estimated 7000 languages currently spoken in our world today, so there is quite a distance to go yet. The work of translation is not easy, as translators must make the scripture not only readable, but to make sense to different cultures. Translating to people who have never seen a sheep or kept livestock or grown crops, or who live nowhere near water, and have no use for boats and fishing are just some examples of the problems faced.
The reaction of people who are given access to a Bible in their own language for the first time is often one of real joy, which makes me feel a little ashamed of the ease with which we can access the Bible today, and yet how little people in this country often know of it.
On this Bible Sunday, and always we need to treasure and regularly read the scriptures which are so easily available to us, and to support the work of organisations such as the Bible Society in our prayers as well as financially, as they continue to make it available to more people all the time.
 Bible Society website
 From the website of the Bible Society: https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/latest/news/full-bible-translation-tops-700-languages-for-first-time/