In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen
There are a few prayer book collects, the special prayers included for each Sunday week by week that have had a lasting impact. In a few weeks on what is now kept as the feast of Christ the King (the Sunday before Advent Sunday) is the one that famously starts Stir up we beseech thee O Lord the wills of thy faithful people, making that day stir up Sunday – and the day when traditionally we should stir up the Christmas pudding. Bible Sunday – which we mark today is another of those. In the last 40 years – this has been associated with the last Sunday of Trinity – which we keep today though the prayer book originally had it on the 2nd Sunday of Advent. Here is the collect
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.
What I particularly like about it is that famous phrase which said of scripture that we need to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Unsurprisingly I am very enthusiastic about the Bible. Over years of ministry I have made many trips to school (to talk about my favourite book) and run many days and short courses to make it more accessible for grown ups. The Bible is a wonderful resource we have at our finger tips. It isn’t a book – it is a collection of books, and books across a wide variety of topics. It is peppered with well-crafted stories. Both stories with well painted characters and stories with meaning and purpose! It contains stories that show human nature in all its glory and horror! There are also long and convoluted (and sometimes rather bloody) histories alongside the complexity of the law as laid down in the Old Testament. (Just have a try at Leviticus if we want to engage with that). There is poetry and the hymn book of the Israelite people but granted – we sometimes lose a bit in translation. There is prophecy and writings looking to the end times (where the meaning is hidden and written in ways that were understood at the time but mystify us!!). In a way the Bible is a whole library in one volume…
We have the fortune to have access to the Bible in our native tongue. Lives were literally lost in the translation of it and we live in a part of the world where owning and reading a Bible is not an activity which might endanger our lives. We have this fantastic resource – the question is how much do we engage with it. How much reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting are we doing?
I was having a conversation a couple of weeks ago about my experience of engaging with passages of the Bible in my daily walk with God. How sometimes reading even in the most familiar of passages, I spot something that really helps my situation that particular day. As I am reading it speaks to me in a new way and gives God through his Holy Spirit a way of helping me and guiding me. Moments of inspiration and revelation of this sort – often start from musing on something I had not spotted before. I am certain this is one of the ways God can guide us – but it does require us to open the book regularly…
Getting down to reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting – starts with reading. It is unsurprising that I have a lot of Bibles!! This is my earliest one – a beaten up Good News that has clearly seen better days (and has been my companion since I became a Christian in my teens). I have ones in traditional language, through to a Bible called the ‘word on the street’. I have one with fabulous pictures and illustrations, and others with room to write in the margins or draw as we are inspired. This is a recent one with beautiful pictures from Hannah Dunnett and space for journaling and recording our own reflections on each page.
Much as I love it – and all the ways into it we have the Bible is not an easy read. For example – The ritual purity laws in Leviticus (I alluded to earlier) are a really difficult read (maybe even a cure for insomnia). If we are honest – We may find reading the Bible difficult for a variety of reasons.
We are not the original intended readers (who understood their culture and rituals in a way we 2000 and more years later definitely don’t!).
Some parts of it are deliberately written in code – so should the text get into the hands of those unfriendly to the Jews or early Christians it did not seem subversive.
It is always a translation from another language or culture (unless we happen to be a scholar of the original languages – which I am not!).
Not to get too technical – Sometimes there are layers of editing within what we are reading – with different agendas playing out too.
My take home lesson from all this is that engaging with the Bible is a good thing to do and preferably a good thing to do daily. We might find that it might be a good time to get a fresh translation or a modern paraphrase to help us engage in a new and invigorated way. Maybe we could ask Father Christmas via our nearest and dearest to get us a version different from the ones we already have. I would be delighted to provide advice on this to suit your needs if that would be helpful.
So once we are reading it – what helps with the marking and learning of the Bible described in our collect. The simple truth is we are probably better off not flying solo…. Getting an interpretation for a passage is a great place to start. Yes, carefully read the passage and note what speaks to you and then carefully read an interpretation. Then take time to ponder!!!
Personally I have been reading New Daylight produced by the Bible Reading Fellowship every day to help with Bible reading for over 20 years…. It gives us a daily passage, interpretation and prayer. It is a really good way to start… It is all laid out for us and they produce a pocket sized booklet 3 times a year to guide us. Another approach, if we want to read readings that others are reading that day – we might also want to engage with the ‘Reflections for Daily Prayer’ series – produced by the Church of England. There is strength in reading, marking and learning alongside everyone who is following the laid down pattern of readings for that day…
Finally we might want to take on a challenge to read all the Bible methodically for a year with some helpful daily reflections to fire our journey… This Bible Challenge book would help us with that and I have used this guide to reading the Bible in a year and it comes highly recommended.
If we are more technically minded, I am pretty sure all of these things are available as phone apps too. Another thing to think about doing as well as reading our Bibles is to listen to them (and there are lots of available audio versions), including one where the whole New Testament is read by the dulcet tones of one David Suchet.. (actor who has been Poirot in recent times!!). Sometimes listening to it helps us to mark and learn from a text rather than just reading!! In a few week’s time as Advent starts we are shifting in our Sunday gospel readings from Matthew to Mark. I cannot commend highly enough, taking out the 90 minutes it would take to listen to Mark’s gospel in one sitting – it will bring it alive!!!! Give it a go!
Really – I am saying all of this because of something it says in our reading from Colossians today and because of that Bible Sunday Collect. What it says in Colossians really tunes in to the inwardly digesting part of the collect. It says Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
What then is ‘the word of Christ’? It is surely more than just his words, although it must necessarily include them. Obviously this relates to the reference to John 1.1-14, with its sublime climax, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived amongst us’. So the phrase refers to the whole of Christ’s life and ministry, his actions as well as his words, and his example and character, given for us to follow. The word also refers to Jesus bringing meaning and purpose to our lives. Meaning and purpose played out in his life (and his influences from his Jewish heritage). Though we might find it easier (at times) not to grapple too much with the Old Testament material, this stuff influenced Jesus and his understanding and was formative to him (and will help us to understand him better). Hopefully at some point we can take some time to lift the lid on the Old Testament and understand some rules of thumb that make it easier to understand and demystifies it.. though not today!
For me letting the word of Christ dwell richly – does mean engaging with the Bible (and all of it). As I said earlier, the Holy Spirit has a way of engaging with what we do read and giving us pointers and messages through our endeavours. Once we have read what we are going to read, let’s pause and ponder and then let the Spirit inform our hearts, our prayer and feed our souls… The collect urges patience in our inward digesting but assures us of comfort from God’s word…. which ultimately helps us hold fast to the hope of everlasting life.
To finish this reflection, I want to take us to where the more modern collect set for today takes us – a prayer that could have been written for times like these… Collect for the Last Sunday after Trinity – Merciful God, teach us to be faithful in change and uncertainty, that trusting in your word and obeying your will we may enter the unfailing joy of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
New Daylight – Bible Reading Fellowship
Reflections for Daily Prayer – Church House Publishing (new version for 2020-2021 now available)
The Bible Challenge – read the Bible in a year – Ed. Marek Zabriske
Collect prayers – Copyright Church House Publishing 2000-2020
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995
Good News Bible – Rainbow Edition
Hannah Dunnett – Journalling Holy Bible – International Version