Luke 18: 9-14 : What happens when you read something?

This sermon was delivered on Bible Sunday during the Sung Eucharist at St Mary’s Diss on the 27th October 2019. Reading: Luke 18: 9-14.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever thought about what’s happening when you read something? 

I don’t mean the act of sitting there in your favourite chair with a good book and a cup of tea as you try and puzzle out who the killer was before the detective reveals all at the end. I don’t mean whether or not we enjoy something either. Some stories are sad. Some are real page turners. Exciting. Scary. Others present satisfyingly crafted characters while some rely heavily on stereotypes and tropes. I’m not interested in any of that.

Rather I’m curious, have you ever thought about the process that’s happening when you’re reading. It seems to me that in a very intimate way we allow another person to give us words to think, and by the thinking of those words we create the worlds, characters and scenes which we all so enjoy. Indeed this is just as true of non-fiction, by following these printed markings our brains are engaged in shared patterns of imagining.

This is an idea which has stuck with me ever since I read it a few years ago in the acknowledgements in the opening pages of a novel. The Author, whose name escapes me completely, ended their acknowledgements by thanking the reader for giving their story life; commenting that without the canvas of our imaginations for their words to paint upon their story would never be able to become the art which they were trying to create.

When we read, we are not simply passively enjoying someone else’s work; we are, somehow, co-creating it with them. To read is to take part in something else, to share in a pattern of thoughts which we did not ourselves think first.

What, then, is it to write? To communicate words for people to think? I would suggest that writing is to point towards something which we have thought which we wish for others to benefit from also thinking, to benefit from also experiencing, to benefit from also believing.

We normally take it for granted that this is how reading and writing works. Yet there’s actually something very profound about this process and this desire to share our thoughts with others; whether they be opinions posted on facebook, news updates about people we know texted to friends, stories we read in books or even analyses of topics we’re interested in published in newspapers or journals. 

Why is the curate talking about reading? What on earth has this got to do with today’s scripture readings? 

Well, we don’t just read facebook, the papers or books. We also read the scriptures. And here’s another thing that we can often take for granted. We have the Bible. If you think about it, the disciples didn’t have the Bible – at least, not the New Testament. They were alive and living it as it happened. When did the Bible appear, and why? The short answer is that something happened to those people who lived through those times which they realised they had benefited from. I say benefitted from as if things improved just like when we can see more clearly from an updated prescription. No, in truth they were utterly changed by what happened; rather than bringing things into focus it was more like having their eyes opened – sometimes literally.

Having had this experience, having rejoiced in this transformation, they were confronted by the reality of death. Through martyrdom, illness or old age these people who lived in those times were going to die and yet their message must live on. And live on it does, through the writings which became the Bible we now have today. Writings which have changed the world immeasurably. Writings which on one level are simply inky blots on paper. Writings which on another level can change everything because the words on the pages of our Bibles are not simply thoughts which we can think about different topics, but are somehow human words which witness to the Divine in such a way as to make the Divine known to us when we engage with him through these words. 

There is here a parallel between the nature of scripture and the nature of the one to whom it witnesses; namely, Christ Jesus.

Jesus, living amongst the disciples as he prayed, told parables, argued with the pharisee and, ultimately, went to Jerusalem to die for us upon the Cross, did so as the God who became flesh and blood like us so that we might truly encounter God as he is.

One of my favourite theologians was fond of saying “When we look upon the face of Jesus, we look upon the face of God”.

This is a tremendously important principle. When God makes himself known, he truly makes himself known. We’re not trying to figure out a magic trick or solve a whodunnit. We actually encounter God and in so encountering him discover that he’s not a god limited to the past, to way back when; he’s the God of the present, the God who is our Lord even now. 

Our encounter with God happens for us primarily in two ways; through the Ministry of the Word, and through the Sacraments. If when we look upon the face of Jesus we see the face of God then when we hear the words of scripture – and the sermon preaching those words –  we hear the voice of God speaking to us.

The Bible, then, is not a dry tome of old writings. It is the ancient witness of the revelation of God, which has been faithfully preserved and passed on by the Church through all the ages so that when we read the words, when we hear the words, when we take them on into first our minds, and then allow them to seep down deep into our hearts, we find ourselves being guided to engage again as those before us did.

Our Gospel passage is a good example for us to reflect on this. We have heard read aloud the words of the text, and indeed in this Gospel passage we have heard aloud in our own language the words which Jesus said to people who were gathered around listening to him. He stood there as a real man speaking to real people, people he knew who had high opinions of themselves and their own goodness while looking down their noses at others. As he tells this parable, we were standing here in our pews turned to face him, and it’s as if we were standing alongside his audience – we are his audience. He says:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

(Pause)

The question for us today is not “What do you think God might be saying?” It’s “What is our response to hearing God speak to us”? Do we tell ourselves “I’m alright, not perfect mind you but I’m a good person and God understands.”? Or, mindful of our need for God’s mercy did we say our confession earlier with the same sense of faith with which the Tax Collector beat his breast? 

The prayer of the Tax Collector became the basis of one of the most enduring prayers of the Christian faith, the Jesus Prayer.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

It’s short and simple, yet profound and elegant. Christians who take it on often repeat it throughout the day as a rhythm of prayer which pulses like a spiritual heartbeat.  It’s a prayer which captures the heart of the Gospel; and, if we let it, captures also our heart for the Gospel as we, in letting the words dwell within us and shape us and encounter God through them, find ourselves participating in the Gospel. 

That is, by engaging with these words we become a part of the holy meaning which is brought to life by the Holy Spirit of Christ as we encounter Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, Son of God the Father Almighty. 

And so, if when we look upon the face of Jesus we see the face of God, and if when we hear the words of scripture we hear the voice of God, then what’s happening when we come forward and receive the sacrament of the Eucharist?

Encountering God is beautiful.

Each moment our lives come into the presence of the love and life of God our lives become the most that they could be in that moment, to the point that when our same lives continue on by stepping away from the presence of God there’s a subtle yet profound difference. Our lives become the same as they were, without the vitality. It’s as if we have taken a deep breath of fresh air in the countryside and then try and walk through town while holding our breath. When you then breathe again in town you can breathe, but the air is tinged with the pollution and smells from cars, industry and humanity.

Encountering God is beautiful, but it’s not enough.

God did not step into creation as one of us simply to encounter us. He became one of us so that he might die our death and in his resurrection offer us the hope of eternal life – with him.

The Gospel and the Bible is full of encounters with God, as is our worship and our prayers. But the Gospel is not that we can encounter God for a moment, but that God desires that we should share in his life and have communion with him. The Church is often described as the Bride of Christ; God is not interested in dinner dates with us, he wants to live with us and be present in all of our lives. 

And this is what is happening when we receive the sacrament. Having been washed with the waters of baptism, when we taste the bread and drink the wine we taste our salvation. The word of God ceases to be an idea of something out there or from way back when. He fills us and sustains us with all that he is so that we might breathe in the love of God, that we might share in the life of God, and that we might receive the mercy of the one who died and lives for us.

In the face of Jesus we see God.
In the words of scripture we hear God.
In the bread and the wine we share in the life of God.

And so on this Bible Sunday let us remember what’s happening when we read scriptures.

The words do not live simply on the page, but are waiting for us to read them so that they might become alive in our minds and live within our hearts.

And may I encourage you this morning as you come for Communion to remember the prayer of the tax collector. As you come to the rail and while sitting in the pews before and after, sit quietly and let this scriptural prayer repeat in your mind, in your heart:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Amen.

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