Guarding the Gospel

2 Timothy 3:14– 4:5

Guy is a fireman. A brave and honourable profession, we’d all agree. However, Guy lives at some point in the near future, when house insulation has reached such a peak of perfection that houses no longer catch fire. What’s a fireman to do, with no fires to put out? The state has come up with a more sinister way of occupying the skills of its firemen. The story I’m thinking of is called Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. 451 degrees is said to be the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts. The story was made into a film, and the first major scene of this film haunts me still. For Guy and his squad of firemen raid a house somewhere, and burn the library that is hidden away in a secret room within. A pyre of books going up in flames is one of the many terrifying images of our age.
But Guy finds himself disturbed by what he’s doing. He broods on the sacrifice of the old man who owned the house, who was prepared to die in a vain attempt to save his dusty tomes; and he surreptitiously pockets one of the books before it can be incinerated. He’s also intrigued by the old man’s grand-daughter, Clarisse. Eventually, the troubled Guy seeks out Clarisse and a clandestine band of book-lovers, who scratch an outlaw’s existence deep in a forest. And when he asks a member of the commune for his name, he is introduced to Wuthering Heights, and to another man called Plato’s Republic. Each of these renegades has become a book. Each of them has committed a book to memory, so that even should the last copy be burned, the book itself will live on, passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. And the book that Guy rescued from the pyre? In Ray Bradbury’s original story, it is the Bible.
Would I guard the Bible with my life? On the shelves of my study I’ve got the Revised Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Moffat Translation, the Good News Version, the AV, the NIV. I’ve got the NEB, the Living Bible, the Scofield Bible, Thompson’s Chain Reference Bible. The internet gives me access to another half-dozen versions.
But how much is it worth to me, this book of books? If a fireman with a flame-thrower threatened me, I’d hand over my Bible to him, in an instant! For I can always buy the latest translation for a few pounds. There are so many second-hand copies of the Bible, this priceless book, to be found in old bookshops that you can’t give them away. Whereas, a mere 600 years ago, owning an English copy of the Bible would have been enough to condemn me to the flames, not just my books.
When Lauren Laverne, I think it is, completes the interview with her castaway, on Desert Island Disks each week, she ends by asking them to choose a luxury item, and a book. And it is assumed that they will also take with them the Bible, and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Yet from the way she says it, you know they are not meant to want these two, they are there just to add ballast in the bottom of the boat!
But Dr John Coleman was held hostage in Iran, years ago. John Coleman spent a year in an Iranian gaol at the start of the Iranian revolution. However he soon realised that his life was not in immediate danger. Deprived of all reading material, he asked if he could have a Bible. He was surprised and delighted, in this militant Islamic state, when his request was granted. He read it from cover to cover, six times, during his internment. And when he returned to England, and told of his experiences, one lady he spoke to remarked, ‘Oh how awful for you.’ ‘Not at all, he replied, ‘how wonderful to have to opportunity to do nothing except read the Bible six times’.
How much of it would we remember, if we were abducted and held in solitary confinement? Could we recite enough to draw spiritual strength from in such a time of need? I don’t ask that question in order to make us all feel guilty this morning. To sit down and learn huge swathes of biblical text just for the sake of it is too much like learning ‘The Lady of Shallot’ at school. But I am aware that I might not remember enough of the Bible to sustain me in john Coleman’s predicament. It is not engraved upon my soul the way it should be; would be if I valued it sufficiently.
The theme of St Paul’s second letter to Timothy is ‘guarding the Gospel entrusted to us.’ Not for its quality of prose. Not for its historical importance, vital though that is to our self-understanding as a once-Christian nation. Not as a lucky charm or totem, to protect us and give us a misplaced confidence in the book itself. But because herein we learn who God is! In these pages, through the stories of the men and women who wrestled with life before us, we connect with God’s love. Supremely in the four gospels themselves, we meet Jesus.
Yes, it’s a difficult book. Bits of it seem strange. Bits seem beyond our comprehension, though Mark Twain once said that it wasn’t the bits of the Bible that he didn’t understand that gave him the trouble, it was the bits he did! St Paul can seem impenetrably difficult, and Revelation seems closer to science fiction than to any other modern form of writing. And rules and regulations about how to scatter bulls’ blood over an altar destroyed by the Romans two thousand years ago don’t seem immediately pertinent to the problems you and I face tomorrow morning.
But think of the stories that are found in our Bibles! Think of the people it records, who have struggled with their faith just as we have! Remember Moses, scared that he won’t measure up to what God wants him to go and do. Remember Elijah, feeling so alone and depressed, and finding God at last, not in the fire or the earthquake, the way he expected, but in the quiet and peace at the end of the day. Remember Ruth: what a love story hers is! Remember Job, calling to God from the depths of his despair. Remember Nehemiah as he rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem, in partnership with God. Beset by hostile neighbours as his men laboured at their task, he prays to the Lord and posts a guard: I love that verse! Remember Jesus, trapped by the clever Pharisees into giving his an opinion about taxation. His response, leaves them dumbstruck: ‘Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s. Or remember the woman caught in adultery, whose accusers try to use her in a pawn in the game of discrediting Jesus. ‘Let him who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone.’ I wish I could think out ripostes like that!
There is so much here to inspire us, and encourage us, to amuse us, to challenge us, to guide us in our search for God. But we would read the Bible if like John Coleman we had nothing else to do, and we’d be surprised. We would read it, and learn it, and guard it, if it were being rooted out and burned by the state; if having it in our possession were a criminal offence. But do we need to wait for such dire eventualities? Can we not value the Bible now the way our forbears did, and through its pages, allow God a little closer?
© Jon Russell 2019