Rev David Curran introduced the fifth & last in the Lent Lecture series with the hymn 'Tell me the old, old story'. He welcomed Rev Anthony Walker on behalf of Churches Together. The lecture is also made available as an audio download via the Spalding Baptist church website.
Anthony was concerned at the level of Bible reading by Christians, the people of the book. Bible Society surveys suggest that Personal Bible reading by Christians has declined – how can we hear God’s word if we don’t read the Bible? He said that we should have a concern for Bible poverty and that we should encourage each other to read the scriptures.
Might we be a Bible-shaped people? Our speaker noted how it was said that, if you cut John Bunyan anywhere, the Bible would come out of his veins. The Lord’s challenge today is that we be a people of the book, shaped by his Word.
Anthony asked "Do we read the Bible in church every week? Some churches leave the Bible to a back burner with just a few verses read out in the service. The Bible needs to be heard. When the Bible is put on a shelf, the church will surely follow it." Those who follow the words of preachers and ministers are hearing God’s word expounded. Anthony said how he was preaching to himself as much as any other.
Anthony smiled as he said that, for some, a sermon is ten minutes and that’s it. For others, that’s just the start of it. In some churches, they put the kettle on when you began to preach so when it started to sing you had preached too long. Whatever the length of the sermon, we need to hear God’s word. Whether it be a light diet or a really good meal – it is important that we are feeding on God’s word. May we get a greater grip of the Bible as part of these lectures.
We live in a secular society which is against supernaturalism. Anthony noted that the Good Book secular bible just happened to come out this year 2011, the anniversary of the King James Bible.
We live in a multi-faith society with the mosque next to the church and chapel.
We live in a materialistic society; if people really admitted what we worship, banks would have stained glass windows.
These voices affect and colour our hearing and interpretation of God’s word.
God leaves us in no doubt as to how we should live, but these voices affect our hearing. Other religions challenge our understanding; the apostle Peter spoke up before the Sanhedrin saying that Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4.12); Jesus himself declared "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14.6). Here in scripture is a clear exclusivism; there is a clear call in the New Testament to live simply that others may simply live. How far do these other voices affect our hearing and understanding of God’s word – dampening down the word of God in our hearts, causing us to soft-pedal the word of God in our hearts.
In the west we’re influenced by individualism – life revolves around me. The jogger runs with iPod earphones ignoring all others. The Bible is collective and corporate in its approach; the Bible is much more ‘us’. St Paul talks to the church collectively. The New Testament is more conscious of the body of Christ. Is the church just "pious particles" or a body one with another? Scripture exhorts us to love one another, forgive one another; the Bible tells us how to live and we should avoid the prevailing voices of the culture.
Anthony highlighted what he described as denominational earphones: we tend to filter things according to the way our church does it… 'We do it this way so it must be the right way – or the only way'. The different groups in the church tend to major on one issue – eg charismatic churches tend to focus on the Book of Acts. How do we hear the whole Bible, not just the portions we like or those our church prefers. How does our tradition colour the way we think?
We sometimes do things not because the Bible says, but because tradition says we do it this way. Anthony cheered the audience with the story of the Sunday school at a Baptist church in Bedfordshire which continued to meet at 2:15pm into the 1960s, scheduled around the times of the trams, even though the last tram ran in 1933!
Some core issues being debated at the moment: the nature of the atonement (what happened on the cross); the authority of the Bible; God’s knowledge of the future ('Open theism') and even, in recent weeks, with Rob Bell's book Love wins debating the fate of those who don’t believe (Universalism). We must come to the scriptures and be like the Bereans in the book of Acts. They examined the scriptures every day to see if what St Paul said was true. We all need to be theologians.
We hear God’s word today with the help of the Holy Spirit. The birth of the charismatic movement in the 1960s has helped the wider church understand the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, there to help us understand God’s word today. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of illumination; the Anglican, Jim Packer, once said, when he spoke on the theme “He shall glorify me”, that he found the church brightly illuminated. It was a powerful sign of the way the church should shine on God. The Spirit's rôle is to be the hidden floodlight shining on the Saviour, making the Bible clear to the believer. He is also the spirit of application, pressing home the message into our lives.
We may have read a portion of Scripture several times and only understand it as it leaps off the page. Anthony described how he and Doreen ‘were followed by Jeremiah 29.11’. They first heard the passage in 1989 in a prayer meeting in Romford, their pastorate at the time. “It was if the word had legs following them around”; one of the deacons repeated the verse on another occasion. They visited a Christian bookshop and saw a mug with Jeremiah 29.11 written on it. A visiting preacher asked the congregation to say the words of Jeremiah 29.11 out loud. And when they visited Spalding Baptist for the first time, Jeremiah 29.11 was printed on the bottom of the notice sheet. The Holy Spirit is there in guidance, comfort or rebuke.
We hear God’s word for us today in community: part of being in fellowship in the local church. We’re doing this together; hearing in community acts as a check or a balance; if we hear something off-key or doctrinally disturbing, the community provides opportunity to check. Those who go off at a tangent lose this strength. In no time there’s a heresy. Jehovah's Witnesses are a case in point.
How do we hear? With a view to obedience? James 1.22 “do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Do we look in a mirror and then turn away, forgetting what we see? To some, it goes in one ear and out the other - rather than being obedient to the Word.
Paul’s letters in the New testament were written following all the problems resulting from not obeying God’s word.
Oswald Chambers wrote “The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience”. How do we find 'obedience' to God's Word living in the world today?
So, to end this series, Anthony described Augustine, serving the early church in North Africa which was once a Christian stronghold, as one of the greatest theological minds the church has ever known. He said that even if the scriptures were studied from early childhood, new treasures would be found within them; even in his old age, he said, his studies were only just beginning.
The questions over refreshments included:
* ‘We don’t hear God’s Word enough’. How can we interact more with the word of God than we do? Is it a priority in our lives?
* ‘We don’t hear God’s Word in a vacuum’. How far do the influences which surround us in our liberal, secular, multi-faith and materialistic society mould our understanding of scripture? Have we as Christians let them undermine its truth, leading to compromise?
* ‘We hear God’s Word through denominational earphones’. Discuss ways in which this may be the case.
* ‘The help of the Holy Spirit’. Has any of the group testimony as to the Spirit illuminating or applying Scripture to their lives?
* ‘Hearing in community’. What might cause the group to feel uneasy about an address from a preacher, that they were not hearing an authentic word from God?
* ‘With a view to obedience’. Discuss Oswald Chambers’ words ‘The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience.’