Jesus Master Carpenter – Bible Sunday 2012

I wonder have you come across this little prayer?

 

Jesus, Master Carpenter,

who on the cross through wood and nails

didst work man’s whole salvation:

Wield well thy tools in this thy workshop;

 that we whom come to thee rough hewn

may by thy hand be fashioned

to a truer beauty and a greater usefulness.

 

I like it. As well as being quite a charming conceit, it expresses quite well the function of Christian religion: to shape us and our world until we are what God wants us to be. “Will you use the faith you’ve found to re-shape the world around?” asks one of our modern hymns. Allowing the Master Carpenter to work on us and in us and in the world through us, so that God’s kingdom may come, and we may be renewed in the image and likeness of God. The potential is there in each of us: just as the wood-carver can see the beautiful figurine within the block of wood, so God can see in each of us his beloved child; and can see what cutting and chiselling and moulding and planing and polishing must happen before the image is revealed in all its beauty. There is a great variety of woods available to the woodworker – oak and mahogany, ash and walnut and pine – some suitable for this, some for that, but all capable of being turned into something beautiful and useful. We come in variety too; and all of us capable of being made beautiful and useful at the hands of the Master craftsman.

 

Among the tools that the carpenter uses is the Bible. Just as the sacraments are not an end in themselves, but means of grace “generally necessary to salvation”, so the Holy Scriptures are a means of grace, a whole garageful of tools to be applied by the expert. In the Bible we can find plans and drawings and blueprints – what the carpenter is trying to make of us; that image of God revealed in Jesus himself.  We might find scale models, in the stories of saints and sinners. We might find tools for cutting off diseased wood – all the “Thou shalt not”s – all the fine tools for working on the details – and the constantly repeated calls to holiness and faithfulness that keep up the process of moulding us.

We see something of this in action in today’s epistle, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. It is a letter, ostensibly from Paul to his younger assistant and protégé Timothy, advising him in his role as leader of the Church in Ephesus – “Advice to a young minister” might be the title. The section we heard today reminds Timothy how he has been shaped by the Scriptures – what we would call the Old Testament. Ever since a child, taught by his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois, Timothy had been familiar with the Jewish scriptures, the commandments, the stories, the writings of the prophets, even though his father was a pagan. Timothy was well-prepared by his upbringing to listen to Paul’s message about Jesus, to believe that here indeed was God at work, and then to join Paul on some of his missionary journeys.

Paul talks about the way the Scriptures are a means of grace: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete”. I think it’s worth saying that not all the tools in the box are the right ones for everyone at every time. Presumably it all depends on who we are, what we are like, what God wants to make of us, and how far we are along the way. Some of the Scriptures seem to be always appropriate; others seem to be entirely irrelevant. Some of them shape us by requiring our obedience; others shape us by making us think and question. Texts that one person hears and hardly notices may speak loudly in the heart of another. Texts that make no apparent impact on us at one stage of our lives may become curiously insistent later on.

For many of us, our regular encounter with the Scriptures happens in the course of public worship. Some people like to read the Bible privately at home, some study it in classes, some read notes and commentaries – all good things to do – but for many of us it is only in church that we read or hear it. That doesn’t matter too much, as long as we are willing to allow the Carpenter to use it to shape us. It seems to me that the important thing is the awareness that God is real and active, and to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit, often in ways we can neither see nor understand, but which are surely shaping us, if we let them. We may of course be better able to hear and use this tool if we take time to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”. Our familiar Collect mentions the importance of patience. I suspect a great deal of God’s work on us is a very slow patient rubbing away, sanding and polishing; and the gentle repetition of Scripture, especially in the familiar psalms and canticles and indirectly in the hymns is where this process goes on, almost unnoticed.

The danger of familiarity is that sometimes, for some reason, the familiar words stop shaping us and instead begin to lay down a kind of coating which makes further shaping impossible. We can become immune to God, so to speak. And then every repetition makes the matter worse rather than better. Paul makes a kind of reference to this when he talks about people “turning away from listening to the truth and wandering into myths”. When our encounter with Scripture ceases to perform its shaping function, when we have stopped trying to discern and listen to the truth, then we have indeed wandered away. Presumably it is one of the functions of the Christian pastor and preacher to help people to discern and listen and allow God to work on them; something that might be welcome or unwelcome, in season or out of season, depending on the person and the situation. Can I suggest that when we come to church, we might think about what God is trying to do in us and with us; that we might be aware that the Holy Spirit is present when the words are read; and we might humbly ask for open ears and minds and hearts.

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