Bishop John [Oxford] often starts his sermons with a prayer which I really like. I haven’t got the precise words but it goes something like this: ‘May my spoken words truthfully reflect the written word so that our time together might lead us to a deeper encounter with the Living Word.’
By ‘Living Word’ Bishop John means Jesus of course and this prayer reminds us of the opening of John’s Gospel where the John the Evangelists – rather than John the Bishop - describes Jesus as the Word. John’s Gospel starts, you’ll remember, with the words ‘In the beginning was the Word’ meaning in the beginning was Jesus. And the opening of John’s Gospel with its account of how the world was created is, in turn, a hark-back to the opening of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, where the writer talks of God speaking as an act of creation. Genesis 1 verse 3 says: ‘And God said, “Let there be light’’ and there was light.’
We can so easily take the words ‘the Word of God’ to mean the Bible that we forget that they have a double meaning. Yes they often mean the Bible but they also means Jesus.
So in today’s Collect we prayed (referring to the scriptures) ‘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 eternal life’. Of course holy Word may equal ‘scripture’ in this prayer but it can also be taken to equal ‘Jesus’.
This – perhaps rather randomly - reminds me of recent debates about the future of Anglicanism culminating in a vote on something called the Anglican Covenant at General Synod the week before last. This vote was not much discussed in the pews but may in fact turn out to be a very important event in the history of the Church – at least the Anglican Church. Anglicanism is often thought of as being built on scripture, reason and tradition and in the recent debates one of the central questions has been the relative importance of scripture compared with tradition and reason in defining Anglicanism.
Some would like literal readings of the scriptures to be definitive. Others would like reason to over-rule scripture where the two apparently contradict and there are many positions in between.
A 16th Century theologian called Richard Hooker is generally accredited with setting out the basis of Anglicanism in terms of scripture, reason and tradition and sometimes the three are talked about as three legs of a stool. I.e. that scripture, reason and tradition have equal importance for Anglicanism: if you take one away the thing will fall over. But this then irritates those who see one leg of the stool as being more important than one of the others e.g. those who see scripture as being more important than tradition and reason.
Actually I think the three-legged stool metaphor is unhelpful because of what I was saying earlier. Scripture itself never sees words as merely written words. The Word of God is not just a means of conveying truth but is also an active word that changes things. It is in short a Living Word. The Word of God – cannot be corralled into supporting a particular position. And moreover the Word of God is to be experienced and encountered not just read.
Today’s Collect thanks God for causing ‘all holy scriptures to be written for our learning’ and this echoes the first line our Epistle reading: ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our leaning that we though patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ At first sight, however, the Gospel reading hardly connects at all with the Collect. It’s an account of what Jesus predicts will happen at the end of time. It starts ‘And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon and in the stars.’ Here Jesus is saying that when the end comes it will be obvious. You won’t then be trying to work out what is going to happen from reading the scriptures. What is happening around you will be a clear and obvious ‘sign’ than things are about to end.
Scripture alone has never been sufficient for our leaning let alone for our encounter with the Living Word that is Jesus. It is however necessary if not sufficient for that learning and encounter. It seems clear that you cannot make any deductions about God through reason alone. I doubt – despite what some philosophers of religion say – that it is possible even to conclude that God exists – merely from looking at the way the universe is constructed.
But while scripture may be necessary for our encounter with God, it has also always been important – as our Gospel reading reminds us - to look around us, to try and see what is happening, and reason what God is doing both through the lens of scripture but also in the light of how scripture has been traditionally interpreted. It is particularly important to look around us in the end times. And it increasingly looks as if we are getting closer and closer to the end times.
The Gospel reading looks forward to the second coming of Jesus – a traditional theme of Advent – when we wait in hope for the coming of Christ – both the celebration of the first coming as a baby born in a stable and the future/second coming as ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’. And here too is a theme which connects the Collect and the Epistle and Gospel readings: that of hope.
In the Collect we prayed that through reading the scriptures we ‘may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.’ In the Epistle reading Paul prays that what the scriptures might bring hope to the Christians at Rome: that ‘Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our leaning that we though patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.’ And the Epistle reading ends with the great prayer,‘Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost’.
So the scriptures are written to give us hope but in looking around us we are also to find hope. To do this we need to look up not down. Jesus in our Gospel reading says ‘And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads for your redemption draweth nigh.’ In other words don’t despair at what you see is happening to the world but have hope that things will eventually turn out for the good.
In the end it is not through poring over the scriptures, studying our traditions and trying to reason things out for ourselves that will bring about the return of the Son of Man. But only by looking up we will see our redemption drawing nigh, only then will we encounter the Living Word who was there at our beginning and will be there at our end.