Sermon preached by Revd. Hazel White, Sunday 19 March 2017
3rd Sunday in Lent, St Mary’s Moseley 10:00 a.m.
Psalm 1; John 4:5-42
God of glory, you nourish us with your Word, who is the bread of life; fill us with your Holy Spirit that through us the light of your glory may shine in all the world.
What nourishes you in your everyday life? Physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – what sustains you, encourages you, and leads to a sense of wellbeing?
We may all respond slightly differently to that question. If you google ‘basic human needs’, you will find various suggestions for a list of what humans need in order to survive, including oxygen, food, water, shelter, and sleep. Some lists also add love and relationship, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
On this 3rd Sunday in Lent, and continuing in our series of sermons on the Bible, we are thinking about how the word of God nourishes us. This is about more than basic human needs, this is about flourishing, and growing in our understanding of ourselves, of others, of God, of the world, and growing in our understanding about that which is of infinite worth.
If we are honest, I guess most of us would not have answered the question that I began with – what nourishes you in your everyday life – with the ‘Bible’, or maybe some of you did. On Friday afternoon, the contextual Bible Study group was looking at the Gospel reading for today, and thinking about where we might find ‘living water’ to refresh us and sustain us today. Answers included meaningful relationships, being out in the warm sun and appreciating the created world, and finding a place to belong, perhaps by being part of a church community that is inclusive and accepting of all, regardless of age, background, ability, or belief.
Psalm 1, our first reading, suggests that nourishment in daily life is to be found in meditating on the Bible: those who meditate on the law of the Lord day and night are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither, writes the Psalmist.
The ‘law of the Lord’, for the Psalmist, would have meant the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In those first five books of the Bible, many of the great Biblical themes are introduced: the Creation of the World; the desirability of relationship, and what happens when those relationships are broken; the idea of Covenant – God undertakes to preserve life, but there is a responsibility on human beings to live up to the divine calling, and to behave in ways that honour our relationships with God and with one another; we also find in those first books of the Bible hopes and dreams and promises, stories of God calling individuals and whole people groups, as well as the experience of exile, and longing for home.
The imagery in Psalm 1 of the tree planted by streams of living water suggests to us that, just as the roots of a tree anchor the tree, and extract moisture and nutrients from the soil which ensure the continued life and health of the tree, so engaging with this book can give us what is needed to sustain our Christian faith over our lifetime, and not just sustain it, but enable flourishing.
That’s quite a claim! I wonder how many of us really attach that much importance to reading the Bible? I doubt many of us manage to meditate on God’s word day and night... do we even aspire to make the Bible, and the insights it can give us, an essential part of our daily lives, I wonder? I suspect that many of us struggle with that, if we are honest. And perhaps in many ways our context makes things too easy for us. There are still places in the world today where people can’t read, or can’t access the Bible in a translation they can understand, and often people in those places have a great hunger for opportunities to read the Bible. When the church has gone underground at times of persecution, people have risked their lives smuggling Bibles to those who have been desperate to get their hands on one.
Perhaps, like me, your approach to the Bible has changed during the course of your life. Some of you, like me, will have attended Sunday school as a child and learned Bible verses off by heart, perhaps you can still recite those verses now. Perhaps you’ve belonged to study groups or house groups when you read the Bible with others. Perhaps you’ve had times when you don’t read it at all. Perhaps you’ve found that different parts of the Bible have given what was needed in the different seasons of life, and in different circumstances and situations. In times of grief, or if experiencing depression, there may be comfort to be found in reading particular Psalms. When suffering, and angry with God, the book of Job may be the place to turn: as we read Job’s rant against God, we may find that we need to make it our own.
If what we most need to hear and learn changes throughout our lives, whether that be comfort, or wisdom, or encouragement, or something else, then it follows that we need to become familiar with all the contents of this book, so that we know what resources are available to us. Our understanding of God can develop and flourish when we explore the length and breadth and depth of Scripture.
And help is at hand for us if we want to do that. The lectionary used by the Church of England designates at least 3 readings to be read on every single day of the year. Whilst those of us who preach regularly sometimes wonder about the decision making processes of those who select which readings are to be read on any particular day, what following the lectionary does do is introduce us to the length and breadth of scripture, sometimes directing us to parts of the Bible we might not even discover if left to ourselves.
There are also all sorts of things around to help us read the set lectionary readings for each day, such as this book with notes on a Bible passage for each day of the year, or various apps or on-line resources, ask one of the clergy team if you need help to find something that’s right for you. But becoming rooted in the Bible does not happen overnight, or even in a few weeks, months or years, because reading the Bible prayerfully means there is always more to learn and discover.
If the Bible is God’s living word, then God can always speak in new ways, as the threads of the Bible are interwoven with the threads of our lives. For us, as for the woman at the well of Samaria, the way in which we encounter God can be surprising, challenging, confusing, inspiring, or even all of those, but it is always a dynamic encounter, with the potential to be life-changing, if we are open to that possibility. Finally, in the Bible, we are introduced to a person who is the human face of God: the person of Jesus Christ, the living water; that image has perhaps lost much of its power for us, because we take water so much for granted… imagine what it might mean to read today’s Bible Readings in one of the African countries currently facing drought and severe famine. Then we might know what it is to really long for that living water. To return to my opening question, there may be many things that nourish us in our everyday lives, all good and helpful things that we need, but only one thing has eternal value, and prayerfully reading this book can help us to discover it.
Prayer: God of all nourishment, teach us to sink our roots deep into your word, that nourished by your wisdom, we might find ourselves held steadfast in your truth and love. Amen.