Church of England Diocese of London St. Aldhelm, Edmonton

Sunday 25 October 2020

25 Oct 2020, 10 a.m.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,  we may embrace and for ever hold fast  the hope of everlasting life,  which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Please take a seat.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Just hearing these words takes me back to my childhood and my mum trying to get my brothers and I to pay attention. Quite often to our schoolwork – none of us were exactly keen to do homework – but to anything that we were doing. The books we were reading, the music we were playing, the shopping list she was sending me out with. Whatever it was, she always said the same thing:

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

I had no idea where the words came from, it was just something odd my mum used to say. Now I know, of course, that the phrase comes from the Book of Common Prayer, from one of the Collects. This prayer, the one I read out at the start of the service as well as just now, is the Collect for today and it is largely unchanged since Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote it in the 16th century.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Such a good phrase. This 500-year-old prayer has stood the test of time in part because of its memorability, but also because it contains so much wisdom, put so concisely. It is a really good summary of how to relate to scripture.

This prayer takes us on a journey into a closer and more meaningful relationship with scripture. First we read the words, then we must mark what is said – mark, a command that has multiple layers of meaning – notice, pay attention, listen for the part of this scripture which has meaning for us. Then we must learn – study the texts we have heard and read, learn about the text, about its context, about what other people think it means, maybe actually learn the text itself, memorise it so it resonates in our heads as we go about our daily lives.

And then inwardly digest. Isn’t that great? Inwardly digest. So memorable, so full of meaning. It suggests to us that the word of God is our food, that it sustains and nourishes us. That we must take in Scripture like we take in food, let it feed us, until it becomes part of who we are, and enables us to grow and thrive.

This is such a good collect. A little gem of a prayer, showing us clearly and precisely how to engage with the Word of God.

Now it’s not my habit to preach on the Book of Common Prayer rather than on the Bible – I’m all about preaching Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended. But I wanted to point out this little lesson in reading Scripture, firstly because it’s so helpful, but secondly because in today’s readings we see what happens when someone really, deeply lives out their relationship with Scripture. We see how Jesus lives out his understanding of Scripture.

The Pharisees come to him to test him by asking a tricky question about Scripture – which is the greatest commandment. And it is tricky – bear in mind that when we hear “commandment” we think Ten, but the Pharisees, they were thinking of the more than 600 commandments in the laws of Moses.

But as we see over and over again, Jesus knows the Scriptures – knows them in a way we never will, knows and understands them as only the Son of God can. And so from all the possible answers to that question, out of Jesus’s relationship with both scripture and God, comes an answer which is simultaneously simple and endlessly demanding; love God, love other people.

It's an answer that the Pharisees can’t challenge.

And then Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisees and asked them a tricky question - who is the Messiah? Whose son is he? It’s a question they could find no answer to - even though the answer was standing in front of them.

But what Jesus shows in this episode isn’t just how handy it is to know scripture in the event of a test. No - Jesus, full of understanding of Scripture, with a deep connection with God, shows what it means to live out that understanding, live out that relationship. Out of his knowledge of all 600 commandments, he shows us that what matters is love. That if we love God and love one another everything else important will follow - that, as he puts it, on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Jesus knows, Jesus shows us, that what happens when you read, mark, learn and inwardly digest scripture is that you come both to know God and also to understand that knowing God means loving God, and loving God means loving everyone else.

There is more. The prayer doesn’t finish with inwardly digesting, and neither does Jesus. Jesus demands not just that we learn to love God and one another, but expects that we will be challenged by Scripture. He puts a difficult scriptural question to the Pharisees – and he demands that we too listen to the difficult questions that the Bible puts to us, and demands that from our listening and learning we come to the most important answer of all – that he is the son of God, the Messiah.

Today’s Collect gets that right too. And so let us pray, “ that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever." Amen.