It might become one of those questions which children one day ask their parents.
Where were you when you heard the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel prize for literature? I was in my car, nodding off slightly- don’t worry I was only the passenger- but I did bang my head against the window when I heard the announcement!
The woman who announced the winner didn’t sound totally convinced either- or she might have been influenced by the Australian habit of making statements sound like questions- when she read out- the winner of this year’s Nobel prize for literature is Bob Dylan? The world at the moment seems perfectly divided between those who are hurraying and those who think the world has taken another peculiar turn.
At the heart of it is a question of genre- does Dylan write great songs or does he write poetry?
Today is Bible Sunday- and that means we have to consider questions of genre too?
If I was to reflect on the whole Bible, as I have done many times in the past, I would remind you of the songs, the poetry and the literature- as well as the history, theology, comic sketches, law, ethics, letters etc which we find across the whole Bible; which, of course is a library about the human quest for and encounter with God.
But this year I want to concentrate on only one part of the bible- well actually 4 parts. The Gospels.
Pictures on the front in gold. Have you ever noticed them?
What are they and why are they there?
Matthew = Human with wings.
This association of the 4 gospels with 4 creatures can be traced back to the middle of the C2nd century, and has a fascinating story behind it- much of it guess-work!
And what it tells us about the nature of the Bible is significant.
And here is a link with what I said about Bob Dylan and genre earlier. Only Mark’s Gospel actually calls itself a gospel.
John and Matthew self- describe as books.
While Luke calls his version an orderly account of events- all those which have shaped the Christian community so far.
The earliest description from outside the gospels themselves comes from Justin Martyr, in about 120 AD, where he calls them the memoirs of the Apostles.
But Gospels was the collective title which stuck; and I think for good reason.
The’ 4 orderly accounts’ was never going to catch on and neither was the 4 books; because that does not really say anything, and they are ,despite what Justin Martyr said, quite clearly much more than biographies or memoirs-, even though they do contain quite a lot of such detail.
The word Gospel – is a translation of the greek evanggelion. The word usually translated as good news in the New Testament, but also used in the Greek world for a public proclamation made by a king or other person of power, and therefore carrying with it a sense that a life changing message is involved.
One of the most popular one man translation of the Bible is called ‘ The Message.’
I am sure that Gospel caught on because it not only describes the type of book referred to, but what it is and what it does.
These four gospels are where we can encounter Jesus Christ. They include information about him, but also much more. They do announce and proclaim a vital message.
They contain meaning, and questions for us. They contain comfort but also profound challenges.
They confirm what the Old Testament also tells us, that our relationship with God is a blessed one, but not easily encapsulated- in a system of rules, or doctrines or beliefs.
It is something, if you like, that we get caught up in but never entirely get! If we had one Gospel only we might have had it easier, but I think we would have been much more likely to miss the richness of what theologians have termed the Mystery of God.
Having 4 Gospels, each with its curious symbol, paints a much fuller, more tantalising and rewarding picture.
Matthew’s Gospel has this man symbol associated with it. This seems to have happened because it begins and ends with humanity; specifically Jewish humanity.
It begins with long genealogies about Jesus’ ancestry.
In doing so the point is made that the culture Jesus inherited shaped him and was a fundamental part of who he was. In Matthew we read of things now long associated with the rabbinical tradition. Jesus gives practical guidance on how to lead a righteous life, how to root that in self- awareness and how to re-configure your motivation. It is the Gospel which allows no escape from the practical application of religion and should have made Anti-Semitism unthinkable.
The symbol for Mark’s Gospel is the lion- because Mark begins his story in the desert- the domain of the wild beasts.
The place where people are most vulnerable; and most aware of their need and who they are.
The guiding theme of Mark’ s Gospel instantly becomes apparent- that the starting point of discovering that you are beloved by God is to be honest about your frailty and faults and terrors.
In the gospel Jesus offers hope and forgiveness, but never a cure all. If it begins in the desert it in ends with the women outside the empty tomb, who are afraid.
It is the Gospel which above all spells out that humility is the root of faith- not something to be banished as you become more proficient but something to be nurtured.
The Ox became associated with St Luke’s Gospel because begins with John the Baptist’s father Zechariah in the Temple at Jerusalem- a place of animal sacrifice.
What happens to Zechariah is something initially terrifying and impossible to assimilate turns over time into a source of rejoicing. Actually again and again in this Gospel God is shown to work through a series of ambushes which at first disconcert but then when light dawns turn out to be transformations. It was CS Lewis who coined the phrase ‘Surprised by Joy,’ to describe those experiences we have which echo this picture.
To me this is a great reminder that faith is not about self- denial- but about the heart and mind being opened up and discovering new horizons; over and over again.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus’ opens the scroll of Isaiah and reads it out, but immediately makes the claim that this is no old text, no ancient wisdom- profound as it is- no, here and now, he will give sight to the blind and set the prisoners free!
And finally John- with its symbol the eagle. John’s Gospel simply is the Gospel that soars. There is a wonderful psalm, which we often say together at Night Prayer- psalm 91, which has the verses.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High:
Who abides under the shadow of the Almighty…
He will cover you with his wings, and you shall be safe under his feathers:
His faithfulness will be your shield and defence.
It is John who assures us that God has been upholding the world since the very beginning and proclaims that his love has no limit and no end.
Each of the Gospels, of course has far more to say than these summaries suggest; but my point is that they complement each other, and help fill in the picture. And together proclaim to us and offer to us the good news God has given- and it is very rich, challenges and eye-popping fare.