January 27, 2013

He unrolled the scroll and found the place

Passage: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”


Could you do what Jesus did at his home synagogue that day?  If I handed you a Bible could you find in the book of Isaiah “where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  You could certainly begin by going to the Bible’s index (you know it has and index, don’t you); you could go to the index and find the page number for the book Isaiah.  But Isaiah has 66 chapters so where is this particular sentence—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”?

Some of you have Bibles with footnotes that offer all kinds of helpful information; for example, in Luke’s gospel where we read this story of Jesus’ visit to his home synagogue you may have a footnote that tells you Jesus cited from the first two verses of Isaiah chapter 61.  (But then you would have to find the gospel of Luke).  Indeed Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah; papyrus scrolls were exceedingly cumbersome. A scroll couldn’t be longer than 35 feet (unrolled) or else it couldn’t be handled and a handwritten copy of the book of Isaiah would have taken an entire scroll.  There were no chapter and verse divisions.  The ability to receive this scroll and find the place where, what we can Isaiah 61:1-2, is written indicates that Jesus was very familiar with the Bible.

Now we could respond—but he is Jesus, after all.  He has special powers of knowing; so many things simple for him should not be expected of others.  I invite you to recall that God became fully human in Jesus of Nazareth; he had to grow, develop, and learn as a human.  He was tested in all respects like we are, said the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 4:15).  I also remind you that the goal of our discipleship is to grow in our likeness of him.  He leads the way in showing us the importance of knowing the scriptures for life and living.

I was recently sent a copy of an “Examination in Religious Knowledge” that was set by the school board of Glasgow in Scotland.  A man from one of our church families was going through his late mother’s memorabilia and came across copies of exams his mother would have written when she was thirteen years of age—the date on the New Testament exam was May 24, 1918.  There was also an Old Testament exam written the day before.  Each exam had six sections with three questions in each section; students were required to answer one from each section.  Here are two sections from the New Testament exam:

Section V

1. What women were at the grave of Jesus? Why were they there?

2. Mention the various appearances of Christ after the Resurrection.

3. What disciple refused for a time to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?  How were his doubts removed?

Section VI.

1. Tell what you know about Ananias and Sapphira.

2. Give a short account of the meeting of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

3. Who said these words: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian”?  Relate the circumstances.

So, could you pass the examination?

1. In 2011 the King James Version of the Bible—also known as the Authorized version—turned 400 years old.  It was the translation of the Bible that most English-speaking Christians over 45 years of age today grew up knowing.  It is the only literary masterpiece produced by a committee. No other writing has penetrated idiomatic speech more deeply or for so long. By one linguist's estimate, three times as many of its words and phrases have entered common usage as have those of Shakespeare.  It gave the language "no man can serve two masters," "how are the mighty fallen" and "out of the mouths of babes." It gave "fly in the ointment" and "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

The KJV is often labelled a "translation." More than 80 per cent of its New Testament and much of its Old Testament was the work of William Tyndale, whose translations of original Greek and Hebrew texts had appeared nearly a century earlier. It is also noteworthy that much of this translation is in simple words, chiefly one or two syllables only. “My sin is more than I can bear.” (Eight words, one syllable each.) “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “I will arise and go to my father.” “Freely have ye received; freely give.” “O ye of little faith.

William Tyndale graduated from Oxford University in 1515, and then moved over to Cambridge to pursue graduate studies; Cambridge at that time being a hotbed of Lutheran theology and Reformation ferment. As he was seized by the truth and power of that gospel which scripture uniquely attests, Tyndale became aware of his vocation: God was calling him to be a translator. He was to put into common English a translation of the bible that the public could read readily and profit from profoundly.  Such a translation was needed desperately, for England was sunk in the most abysmal ignorance of scripture, and deprived therefore of the faith and obedience and comfort that the gospel alone supplies. The clergy were ignorant too. Worse, the clergy didn’t care. Tyndale vowed that if his life were spared he would see that a farmhand knew more scripture than did a contemptuous clergyman.

The church, however, didn't agree with him. The church’s hierarchy had banned any translation of scripture into the English tongue in hope of prolonging the ignorance of the people and thereby prolonging the church’s tyranny over them. Tyndale wanted only a quiet, safe corner of England where he could begin his work. There was no such corner. He would have to leave the country. In 1524 he sailed for Germany. He would never see England again.

By 1535 Tyndale had completed his translation of the Bible but was always on the run from those who sought to end his work by ending his life. In 1535 Tyndale was living under the protection of sympathetic British merchants in Antwerp, in May of that year a young Englishman who needed large sums of money to pay off huge gambling debts betrayed Tyndale to Belgian authorities. Immediately Tyndale was jailed and had been in prison for eighteen months already when his trial began. The long list of charges was read out. The first two charges—one, he had maintained that sinners are justified or set right with God by faith; and two, to embrace in faith the mercy offered in the gospel was sufficient for salvation—these two charges alone indicate how blind and bitter his anti-gospel enemies were.

In August 1536 he was found guilty and condemned as a heretic. He was assigned another two months in prison. Then he was taken to a public square and asked to recant. So far from recanting he cried out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Immediately the executioner strangled him and ignited the firewood at his feet. Tyndale’s work, however, couldn’t be choked off and burnt up. Eventually the King of England approved Tyndale’s translation, and by 1539 every parish church in England was required to have a copy on hand for parishioners to read.

What seems long forgotten today is that the impetus to have the Bible translated into common language was so that everyone could know this word that witnesses to Jesus Christ. As Tyndale envisioned, so a farmhand could know scripture.  Further, the impetus for people whose efforts gave rise to an education system with the goal of a literate population was first so people could read the Bible for themselves.  We have co-opted education for a myriad of other purposes today denying to our students the privilege of reading the very book that gave rise to education in the first place.

2. We read scripture in church every Sunday.  We don’t read McClean’s magazine or National Geographic. Why not?  Instead of scripture why don’t we read something inspiring from say Reader’s Digest or Sports Illustrated? Why don’t we?  The Bible was written such a long time ago leading many to discount it as out of touch.  I suppose we could ask Jesus the same question; the text from Isaiah he was reading was five hundred years old in Jesus’ day.

The reason we read the Bible in worship is because of the crucial relationship between Jesus Christ and the Bible; because of the crucial relationship between the scriptures and God.  The Bible is a witness to God’s incursion into the lives of people.  The Bible attests that the characteristic of the living God is that he speaks.  When God speaks to people everywhere in the Bible the people know that they have been spoken to, they know that it is God who addressed them, and God informs them of the meaning of his message.  God stamped Himself upon them, commissioning patriarchs, prophets, and apostles.  Eventually their witness to God is written down.  Scripture appeared.

Let us take the apostles for example; though the same can be said of patriarch and prophet. The apostles are not our Lord. The apostles are spokespersons for our Lord who point to him. They are witnesses. And by the mysterious yet real work of the Holy Spirit their witness to him becomes the means whereby he imparts himself afresh. Those who have been listening to the apostles, mulling over what Peter, James and John have to say, are startled as they realize that the one about whom Peter, James and John have been speaking; this one is now in their midst, is speaking to them himself. Suddenly they know themselves invited, summoned even, to the same intimacy and obedience, comfort and contentment that Peter, James and John have known for years. In other words, the distinction between hearing about Jesus Christ and meeting him; this distinction has fallen away. For this reason Jesus announces, “Whoever hears the apostles hears me; and whoever rejects them rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)

But of course apostles don’t live forever. As it becomes obvious that history will continue to unfold after the apostles have breathed their last breath, their testimony is written down.  Their testimony written will henceforth function in exactly the same way as it used to function spoken.  In other words, as the apostolic testimony written is owned and invigorated by God, people today who read it for themselves or hear it expounded in church find themselves acquainted with the selfsame Jesus Christ.

The bible isn’t a book of biology or astronomy. It is the testimony, the witness, of prophets and apostles to Jesus Christ. Christ is a person; the bible is a book, a thing. Person and thing are categorically distinct. At the same time, while knowledge of the book and intimate acquaintance with the person of Christ are distinct, they can never be separated.  Martin Luther used to say, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ child is laid.”  On the one hand, nobody confuses a manger of straw with a human being. On the other hand, said wise old Martin, if you want to apprehend the child you have to go to the manger, since the manger happens to be the only place where this child can be found.  The shape of English life subsequent to Tyndale is unimaginable without his English translation of the bible. More important, our life in Christ—yours and mine—is impossible without scripture, for this book, the normative witness to Jesus Christ, ever remains the manger in which child is laid.

3. The theologian Thomas Torrance described the importance of the Bible this way:  … the Holy Scriptures are the spectacles through which we are brought to know the true God in such a way that our minds fall under the compelling power of his self-evidencing Reality.”
T.F. Torrance, Reality & Evangelical Theology; The Realism of Christian Revelation

Torrance’s articulation while excellent may sound a little too technical; what does that look like in the day to day of our life.  A few years ago Vivian Carter was part of the ministry team at Central; one of the things I appreciated about her was her very practical approach to how this worked in the practicalities of life.  One day we were talking about a matter that we needed to address and she asked what story from Jesus life might address this situation; a story that could give some shape for crafting an action plan.  It was her habit to search out something from Jesus life and teaching that could shape how to act with respect to current challenges.

Here is how it worked in Jesus’ life.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  After he read this text he began his address or sermon saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.  This was the text that animated Jesus’ ministry; it pervaded his imagination as guide for how his work would unfold—for how he would engage in relationship to the people he met.  It gave shape to the message he would deliver.  It was his mission statement, so to speak, but unlike many that simply sit on the wall in a lovely frame he lived this mission.

You can hear echoes of this Isaiah text that Jesus read when gave his sermon on the mount.  His opening words—Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Is this not indeed “good news to the poor”?

Think for a moment of the beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  As these sentences of Jesus permeate the heart, mind, and imagination of believers consider the trajectory of life these point toward; consider the way they guide us in our relationships with people; think of how they form in the heart shaping what we treasure.  These things bless life. They are the substance of love.

It is my conviction that a congregation would be well served and would serve well if its people could open the Bible and find the place in Isaiah where it is written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  Amen.