Peter Jensen meditates upon how, as we read it, the Bible is in some ways jarring and puzzling, but also infinitely precious.
Peter Jensen was Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2013.
This day, as far as I am aware, I met my first Tibetan. More than that, my first Tibetan Christian. I had been praying for this over the years since 2008, aware that there is a handful of Tibetans in Australia, mainly refugees. I had acquired a Tibetan Bible from India and had vowed that I would pass it on to my first Tibetan when I met them. And so I did, to the evident huge delight of the recipient. That joy reminded me how easy it is to take the scriptures for granted and how wonderful it is that they should be so readily available in our own tongue. This, of course, is the fruit of the Reformation. We praise God for William Tyndale for a start.
The more I read the Scriptures, the more I am filled with awe. Like the God whose Spirit inspired them, they are not to be treated lightly. Living as we do, in a society whose thought-forms are utterly alienated from God, we are frequently reminded how very strange the Bible is. I sometimes think that they are rather like a rough, irascible, shaggy unmannered uncle who comes to stay, creating unease and curiosity in equal measure.
My reading this last year has been very Old Testament oriented. The lists of names, the strange world of the very long-lived, the wars with their huge numbers killed, the laws which deal with an agrarian pre-industrial economy, the extraordinary miracles, the stories in which relate the villainies of the great biblical heroes, the words of vengeance and pain — these and a dozen other features jar and frighten. Is God like this, this jealous God of ours?
One thing that has helped me is that I have been listening not just reading. The splendid audio book with the voice of David Suchet, brings a newness to Bible reading, which makes up for the fact that I am now reading mainly on my iPad (because of eye problems — I don’t think I would do this otherwise — I am not sure it works as well as a book). Suchet reads even the lists of names with such care; with him in my ear, I had to slow down and assimilate as never before. If he took so much trouble, why shouldn’t I?
But back to the God of this Bible. When we are tempted to rely solely on a handful of favourite New Testament passages (I confess; it’s Romans 5:1-11 for me, every time), passages which bring us comfort and consolation and assurance, we will find that in the absence of the whole Bible surrounding the passages, even they will become clichéd and hackneyed.
Which, by the way, is a reminder of the importance of expository preaching through the biblical text. And it also reminds us that the masters of the English Reformation arranged for the consecutive reading of both Old Testament and New Testament (twice a year) with the Psalms every month. Now this, of course, presupposes church every day. But how many of us are actually continually reading the whole Bible, and how many of us are using the Bible in church? It is interesting to see the shrinkage of Bible reading in evangelical churches — it is odd not to have two readings for a start, and what of the Psalms? What our ancestors gave us through The Book of Common Prayer was the language of God both to speak to him and about him. Should our songs not be more overtly biblical? How unlike the Psalms most of them are. But I diverge.
How about this uncle, this shaggy, dangerous, difficult relative? In our frenetic, comfortable, atheistic world, he enters as an alien — thank God. It is as if we discover as time goes by the uncle is rough but strong and utterly dependable. Unlike those around us, he has experienced the world as it really is; he knows human nature for what it truly is; and he does not present the tame God of our little assurances, but the true and holy God of the universe.
It is the whole Bible which is the true context for the coming of our Saviour.
In the end, it is as if the uncle uncovers the truth about us. It is not he who is the alien, but we; he is not the problem, we are. In the end, as we get over the rough exterior and our own rather respectable and superficial judgements, we find that we are in deep, deep trouble. But we also have with us the very one you want to have in a small boat on a tempestuous sea. Indeed, as he fixes you with his eyes, you see a depth of understanding and truth that you will never find in a million secular books or lecture rooms or editorials or journalistic reports. And you will see that it is God himself who is addressing you with a directness that take the breath away and with a message which will save you.