Sermon - Sunday, 16 July 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 16 July.

Scripture: Isaiah 55: 10-13 / Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Text: so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55: 11)


Of the various Bibles which I have in my study, there are two which hold a special significance for me.

The first is the Bible presented to me in July 1978 by the Presbytery of Irvine and Kilmarnock on the occasion of my licensing as a minister of the Church of Scotland.

The second is the Bible given to me in May last year by the Scottish Bible Society on the morning I was installed as Moderator of the General Assembly.

Now, if giving a Bible to the new Moderator sounds a bit like taking coals to Newcastle – you would be forgiven for thinking a Moderator might already have one – it was still a welcome gift, not least because I was able to choose the particular version or translation.

The Authorised or King James Version, the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible, the Good News Bible, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, Lorimer’s New Testament in Scots, the Jerusalem Bible, the Message: if these are some of the translations with which you might be familiar, did you know that the first translations of the Bible into ancient English date from the 7th century AD?

And would you be surprised to learn there are now over 450 English translations of the Bible?

When we were in London last November, we visited the library in St Paul’s Cathedral, a library which boasts an original copy of the Tyndale translation of 1526.

And the Tyndale translation was one of the sources used to create the King James or Authorised Version.

In January 1604 King James VI and I convened a conference at Hampton Court where a new English translation of scripture was proposed in response to problems with earlier translations.

So it was, forty seven scholars were appointed, arranged into different groups or companies, and in 1611 they produced not just a new translation of the Bible but what came to be recognised as one of the great classics of English literature.

So given the vast selection available, which translation did I choose?

I chose a copy of the New Revised Standard Version, the translation widely recognised by the Biblical scholars to be the most accurate translation of the Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin of the ancient texts.

Although it almost goes without saying that the Bible is at the heart of the life, worship and faith of the Church of Scotland, given October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, an event in which the Bible and its interpretation played such a key role, it is worth reminding ourselves of the centrality of scripture to our faith, our worship and our understanding of God.

If in one sense the Bible is best understood as a library of books – and like any library the books of the Bible have been carefully arranged into different sections – the introduction to the New Revised Standard Version asks us to imagine the Bible as a patchwork quilt.

The Bible as a patchwork quilt: it is an image which appeals because although its collection of sixty six books have been written by many different people in many different places and times, the multi-coloured patches of their work form one gloriously colourful garment.

Yes, there are history books as well as books of poetry and collections of moral and ethical instructions but the Bible is much more than interesting history, beautiful poetry and important moral lessons; it is the sacred Word of God because it draws us into the embrace of God’s purpose, truth and love.

The centrality of scripture for the Christian church and the Christian life can be expressed in at least three distinct ways.

Firstly, it is through the Bible that we begin to discern something of God’s nature, a nature St John sums up in one word; love

Let us love one another because love is from God

Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God

Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love [1]

And John also offers the insight that it was because God so loved the world, God’s love took face and voice in the child born in Bethlehem.

Of course that is not to deny terrible things happen in our world, and sometimes it feels as though our inhumanity towards one another knows no bounds, but it is to claim the determining reality in our lives is not sickness, sadness and death but the grace and mercy of the God of love.

If the Bible helps us discern something of God’s nature, it also gives us all that is necessary for holy living.

Beyond the day to day needs for food, shelter and warmth, human beings seek meaning and purpose in life.

At our best, human beings not only survive, we explore the mysteries of the universe and seek answers to the deep questions of life, questions not only about how the world came to be but why it came to be, not only about how human beings came to be but why.

These are questions the Bible takes seriously and St Paul put it well when he spoke about the ultimate futility of being able to speak the languages of mortals and of angels, of having all knowledge, power and understanding, but being devoid of love.

Faith, hope and love: holy living is living graced by these three gifts, and these are the gifts nurtured in scripture.

Discerning God’s nature is love, nurturing the gifts of faith, hope and love; if these are two of the ways in which the centrality of the Bible to the life and worship of the church and its people can be expressed, the third way is captured in one of the most sublime passages in scripture when through the prophet Isaiah, God declares that the word which goes from God’s mouth will not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

As much as the world often seems chaotic to us – think of the political upheaval of the last eighteen months, the terrorist incidents at home and abroad, the turmoil of thousands of people finding their homes were no longer safe in which to live – we are not the first or the only people to live in challenging times.

For the people of ancient Israel, the experience of being forced into exile had been shocking, bringing with it not just a sense of human despair but of spiritual abandonment.

How could they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

As for the people of the early church, we know persecution was a constant threat and we can but imagine there was a deep seated fragility to their new found faith and life.

It was for such people in such times Isaiah spoke God’s message, offering the reassurance that beyond the immediate circumstance of the day lay a thread of purpose, God’s purpose, which drew together the often good and joyful but sometimes chaotic and painful experiences of life into a meaningful whole.

As he describes the rain and snow watering the earth and making things grow, Isaiah draws a parallel with the natural world and humanity fed and nourished by the word of God.

It is a glorious picture of what creation flourishing looks like, and of the world reconciled to God, such that even the mountains and trees clap and shout for joy.

And in equally challenging times, Jesus offered his disciples a parable about a sower scattering seed and with it the reassurance God’s word could be trusted, God’s purpose would prevail, as the seed which fell on good soil produced such a rich harvest.

If sola scriptura (by scripture alone) was one of the founding principles of the Reformation, the present day New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, commends the continuing importance of the Bible to the life and worship of the church and its people.

Christianity isn’t about cosy little lessons, to make us feel better, Wright says.

It’s about what God’s doing in the world – what he’s already done in Jesus and what he wants to do through us today. [2]

For the better part of two thousand years the Bible has been at the heart of something quite remarkable as people of different places and times have read and listened and found their lives changed by the love, the goodness and the healing grace and power of the Word of God.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen




[1] 1 John 4: 7ff

[2] Tom Wright Matthew for Everyone Part 1, Chapters 1-15, SPCK, London, 2002, p159