Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bible Sunday sermon: Luke 18.14 and 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5

The Bible is an amazing book.  It is written in three different languages - Hebrew, Aramaic, and a Greek - and across three different continents - Europe, Africa, and Asia.  It was written over a period at least 1500 years by over 40 different people.  It has 66 books, 29 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. 

The chapters system we now know and rely on to navigate this library of books were first added in 1205, in total there are 1189 chapters in the Bible.  The verse numbers were only added in 1556 - all 31,173 of them!  The shortest of these verses in England is John 11.35 which simply and powerfully reads "Jesus wept."  Psalm 119 is by far the longest chapter.  There are five books that only have a single chapter: Obadiah, Philemon, 2 John, 3 John and Jude.  Of these 3 John is the shortest. 

"Every Christian ought to study this book because it is the whole truth" - John Wycliffe

All that information aside, of which exact knowledge means little to salvation, it is to my mind good to begin this sermon with two fantastic quotations from Bishop J.C. Ryle to set the scene.

"Inspiration, in short is the very keel and foundation of Christianity.  If Christians have no divine book to turn to to warrant their doctrine and practice, they have no solid ground for present peace or hope, and no right to claim the attention of mankind.  They are building on a quicksand, and their faith is in vain.  We ought to be able to say boldly: 'We are what we are, we do what we do because we have here a book which we believe to be the Word of God.'"

"If the Bible is not the Word of God and inspired, the whole of Christendom for 1800 years has been under immense delusion, half of the human race has been cheated and deceived, and churches are monuments of folly.  If the Bible IS the Word of God and Inspired, all who refuse to believe it are in fearful danger, they are living on the brink of misery. No man, in his sober senses, can fail to see that the whole subject demands serious attention."

What powerful sentences, cutting clear through the darkness and showing plainly the truth and importance of our sermon today.

Scripturally the best place to begin when considering the Scriptures is our gospel reading: Luke 18.10-14
" 10 Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11  collector The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: 'God, I thank You that I'm not like other people - greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week:  I give a tenth of everything I get.' 
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Imagine a bishop all pomped out in his robes and colours, his ecclesiastical bling and silly pointed hat, and hanging around with all the eucharistic toys he can find at the Lord's Table.  He is there in a great and powerful cathedral, and as he lifts up some monstrosity of a monstrance he looks at his massive Bishops Ring with its immense gem stone.  He has made it in life, he has reached the top, he is the man.  And he lifts up his hands from beneath his chasuble and thanks God saying 'How awesome I am to have got here God, thank you for making me so wonderful and clever and intelligent and bishop like! I deserved all this and you gave it to me'

At the back of church there is a young man, his hair is dyed black as a tar pit, it hasn't been washed in a few days at least. He is wearing a black t-shirt that just says "Death Metal is LIFE" and has black leather combat boots on (with red shoelaces of course!)  On his arms are spiked bracelets and around his waist are no less than six belts all arrayed with spikes and studs and chains.  On his arms are tattoos of naked women and skulls with snakes in their eyes.  His eyes have black eyeliner and his beard has food kept in it for later.  He dare not even go to the pews let alone the front, he hides behind a big pillar and just falls on the skin of his knees because his jeans have rips in.  He looks at the floor, not thinking himself worthy to even look upward to heaven and begs God, whoever that may be, to forgive him.
Here we see the two fundamental attitudes of the human heart, the two attitudes that human nature can take. One is arrogance and the other humility.  One is certain in his own strength, trusting his own righteousness, he stands tall before the Holy God, looks on others as lesser beings.  The other is on his knees, full of repentance, seeking mercy he knows he doesn't deserve, accepting of all God will command, seeing himself as nothing, as but dust and ashes before a Holy God.

" How dare you, how dare you even entertain the thought that you know better than God!"

Which are you when you approach God's Holy Scriptures?  Are you humble? Are you filled with awesome wonder that God would give such a gift to the likes of you?  Do you get on your knees and recognise its authority over all of your life and say "not I but your will be done"?

Or do you stand tall and stiff-necked, full of arrogance and pride before God's gift and Word? Believe me when I say that God is not a liar, He tells us time and again that all his words are true, trustworthy, sure, certain, and pure, yet you believe you know better than God? You have the sheet audacity to disagree with the creator of the whole universe!?  You point to this and that and say "no" or "not today in modern Britain" or "I don't believe that is true."  How prideful and arrogant! How dare you, how dare you even entertain the thought that you know better than God!  You dare to look down on those 'poor misguided people' who insist that Scripture is Holy, inspired, perfect - who live their lives on its foundation?

Those are the only two attitudes to God and Scripture.  Humble obedience, acceptance and faith, or arrogance, pride, and faith not in God but in human intellect and folly.

" If the Bible IS the Word of God and Inspired, 

all who refuse to believe it are in fearful danger"

 J.C. Ryle

Bear all of this in mind as we look at 2 Timothy 3 beginning with verse 14.

" But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you"

Paul says "continue in" - oh how we have deviated from the faith of the apostles today!  In the middle ages it was men like John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer who rescued the church from idolatry and heresy.  Who will stand up today?  Will the real Christians please stand up?  those great men of the past used on sure and certain foundation to shake the world to its sense and the dark ash of deceit from the tree of life: Scripture and Scripture alone.  We thank them for returning us to the Gospel, but do we thank them for how they did it?  Or do we look down on them presuming we know better?  Do we think their faith that the Scriptures could be understood as truthful on face value in all times and places naïve?

Let us continue on through this passage to verse 15:

" and you know that from childhood you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for the salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" 

Hear what Paul says, "from childhood" - do we raise our children in the Scriptures?  Do we use all the resources available to us for family and private Bible Study?  Personally I cannot state enough how important I think it is for every family to have a good and solid Study Bible - I would recommend the HCSB Study Version or the ESV Study Bible, both are mighty fine works though the former is more accessible for families to my mind. I have a super large Bible, bigger than a rugby players chest, that was designed as a family Bible, it has illustrations and the text of Scripture and beneath each page short notes by Matthew Henry, the greatest of Biblical commentators, on each chapter - we would do well to emulate history and continue such family devotional times each and every day.

"The Holy Scriptures" - here we are clearly and plainly told that the Scriptures are holy, they are sacred.  the Scriptures are above reproach, they are something set apart by God, they are above and beyond all other writings.  Do we treat the Bible as Holy?  Do we recognise the immensity of what we hold in our hands?  Do we cherish it as something it is our duty and our joy to read and learn?

Verse 16, the crucial verse,

" All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness"

The phrase "inspired by God" or more literally "breathed out by God" teaches that the Scriptures are the very words of God, from his own lips, expelled from, as it were, the breath in His chest.  It is channelled by His Holy Spirit through the bodies and lives of His servants and whilst bearing their mark preserves its impeccable and impeachable holiness and inspired inerrant nature.  Do you accept and believe the Bible is no merely human book?  Do you believe the very words of the Bible are chosen and destined by our Heavenly Father, by the God of all truth and love?   Many I am sure would say "Yes, I do" but wait, what is this?   I missed out the first, inspired, God breathed, word of this verse of Scripture - "ALL"

ALL - ALL of Scripture is divinely inspired by a God who does not know lies or error, for whom the word 'wrong' can never, ever, apply.  Do you believe that ALL, ALL of the Bible is God's Holy Word?  Do you believe that not one joy or tittle, line or sentence shall be changed but stands eternal as truth itself?  Is ALL of the Bible inspired, without error, filled with eternal truth?  I am sure many who said "I do" before would now look down at their shoes and mumble under their breath "I don't."

"Do you accept and believe the Bible is no merely human book?  Do you believe the very words of the Bible are chosen and destined by our Heavenly Father, by the God of all truth and love?"

Yet here it is written clear as day - all of Scripture is inspired.  And so we return to our Gospel reading.  We all want to say that we are the tax-collector, who humbly accepts the word and authority of God.  But look closer and we see that we are all Pharisees, standing in judgement over the Bible in pride rather than it standing over us in judgement with us bring humble slaves of Jesus Christ.

I am not claiming that it is easy to accept ALL of the Scripture, there are difficulties, but these should not keep us from accepting the truth.  Many years ago astronomers were faced with a similar difficulty.  They observed that the planet Uranus seemed to defy the very laws of gravity in how it moved, it made no sense.  Some scientists felt this difficulty meant the Laws of Newton, the foundation of all physics, chemistry, and science, must be wrong.  In response a French scientist declared that it was wrong to give up a principle that has so much merit for the sake of one difficulty, he said that whilst they might not at present be able to explain Uranus's orbit of the Sun, the Laws of Gravity should be assumed correct and in the future something will be revealed to vindicate this.  Four years later Neptune was discovered by astronomers and it explained everything.

I have no doubt in my mind that when we come face to face with God, He will easily answer all the questions and difficulties with the Bible and its alleged contradictions and errors.   We will see that every single word of the Bible, when it was first written, was 100% true and sure as the Laws of Gravity or that the Earth orbits around the Sun or Jesus Christ is Lord.

"I have no doubt in my mind that when we come face to face with God, He will easily answer all our questions about the alleged contradictions and errors in the Bible"

So where does this leave us?  ALL of Scripture is perfect and inspired by God, it is our bounden duty and joy to accept every word as true and an authority on every aspect of our lives.  Not only is all of the Bible inspired, it is also united in being a witness to Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for our sins.  Jesus is the centre of history, the universe, and Scripture - all of which exist to point to Him as the only way to salvation and eternal life in heaven.

If this is true - and it is - then we were given Scripture not just to know how to live, but, more importantly, who it is we live for.   If you want to deepen your relationship with God, to know Him better, to have greater intimacy with Him, you will find it all in the prayerful reading of the Bible.

As John Wycliffe said:  "To ignore the Scriptures is to ignore Christ."  Wycliffe translated the Bible into English because in his own words "every Christian ought to study this book because it is the whole truth."

Are you a Christian?  Then daily pick up your Bible and read, study it, soak yourself in its pages that you might know more of God and who He is and what He has, will, and does do. As Archbishop Cranmer wrote in his famous Collect Prayer for the second Sunday in advent:

"Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which though hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ" 

The best way to understand the Scriptures is merely humble faith - our Timothy reading told us that knowledge of the Bible becomes wisdom through faith in Jesus Christ.  John Wycliffe said it best "The learner of Scripture does not acquire the wealth of wisdom unless with contrition he becomes humble."

"The learner of Scripture does not acquire the 

wealth of wisdom

 unless with contrition he becomes humble" 

- John Wycliffe

My prayer for you all is twofold:

-           Firstly that you would each day pick up your Bible and read it prayerfully.

-           Secondly, that you would not be like the Pharisee, arrogant and prideful, but be like the tax-collector, humble and accepting.

I pray that you would have the faith and courage to accept all you read as God's Holy Word, if you read something you dislike, or think should no longer apply even though the Bible says it does, if you read something modern society disagrees with or finds vile, do not ignore it or deny it but get on your knees and repent of your desire to insult God's goodness and honesty, pray for help from the Holy Spirit that He would change your heart from one of stone, closed to God's truth like an unloving servant, to one of flesh that beats in time with the heart of Jesus, that He would take your mind with all its human pride, arrogance, and boasting, and He  would show you why and how what He wrote in Scripture is true,

Perhaps the greatest threat to Christianity today, as it always was, is the denial of Scripture, on which we base all of our life and through which we can trust we know both Jesus and the heart of God.

Never compromise the faith, or the truth of Scripture, because of pressure from an allegedly 'progressive' society.

"To ignore the Scriptures is to ignore Christ" 

 - John Wycliffe

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