At Christmas we celebrate the wonder of the birth of Christ some 2,000 years ago, but … what would it be like if no-one knew?!!

God could send angels again and again to tell us about these wonderful events and about Himself & ultimate reality, but for whatever reason He decided that it should be the responsibility of us human beings to spread the Truth and the Good News that regardless of our lives to-date, God wants us to have a fresh start and be friends or better friends with Him going forward.

To underpin and to preserve God’s Message from error our Lord has given us the “sacrament” of the Holy Bible – a book containing words written by human authors, but also written by the Holy Spirit and today in the presence of its ultimate Author it becomes to us the living Word of God – a “sacrament” indeed!

The way the Bible has been preserved and handed down to us is nothing short of miraculous and in the New Year we have a special opportunity to celebrate the Message of Christ and life in His name through the Scriptures in our own language; ie, to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible.

It was the followers of John Wycliffe who undertook the first complete English translations of the Christian scriptures in the 15th century though these translations were banned in 1409 due to their association with the Lollards. In 1525, William Tyndale, an English contemporary of Martin Luther, published a translation of parts of the New Testament and in 1537 (the year after Tyndale’s death or martyrdom on a charge of heresy) the Tyndale translation of the whole Bible (including some parts of the Old Testament not actually translated by Tyndale himself) became the first printed Bible in English.

This then, slightly edited and adapted by Myles Coverdale, in 1539, became the basis for the Great Bible which was the first “authorised version” by the Church of England during the reign of King Henry VIII.

When Mary I succeeded to the throne in 1553, she returned the Church of England to the communion of the Roman Catholic faith and many English religious reformers fled the country, some establishing an English-speaking colony at Geneva. These English expatriates produced a translation dated to 1560 which was a revision of Tyndale’s Bible and the Great Bible on the basis of the original languages and became known as the Geneva Bible.

In 1568, the Church of England responded with the Bishops’ Bible, a revision of the Great Bible in the light of the Geneva version and it was this Bishops’ Bible that formed the basis of the King James Version – forty unbound copies of the 1602 edition of the Bishops’ Bible being specially printed so that the agreed changes could be recorded in the margins.

The resulting masterpiece, owes an enormous amount to the team of translators, but also to William Tyndale – it is estimated that the KJV Old Testament is about 75% Tyndale’s and the KJV New Testament over 80%.

It was this Authorised Version or King James Version – a translation authorised by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) in 1604 and  completed and published in 1611, 400 years ago this New Year of 2011 – which became the standard for English-speaking Protestants. Its flowing language and prose rhythm has had a profound influence on literature since that time and an incidental benefit of understanding the language of the KJV is that one can understand without translation practically all books written in the English language since the introduction of printing.

The original printing was made before English spelling was standardised, and when printers, as a matter of course, expanded and contracted the spelling of the same words in different places, so as to achieve an even column of text.

As an editorial last November in the Times said, The 1611 text is not an archaic and difficult work. It’s power lies in its directness… It makes poetry out of narrative, not by ornamentation but by rhythm… The book of Job ranks with any literary work in the [English] language, including Shakespeare’s. Extraordinarily, the King James Bible was written by committee. It’s 54 translators were inspired to their task… they fashioned cadences that have saturated English literature from John Bunyan to DH Lawrence. The anniversary of their work provides opportunity for historical reflection, but also for restoring it to the nation’s public life.

We as a Church should have a view on the KJV and I would suggest we should think of positives rather than negatives. If we have the national press singing the praises of the KJV, what should we be saying?

Personally, I think we should agree with the plaudits for the KJV as Literature and as an important part of British history and our heritage and we certainly should encourage people to actually read it!

But the point which must not be missed (and surely it’s the Church that should be making it) is that the reason the KJV was produced was not to produce a piece of literature or a piece of work which would go down in history, but that the truth of the Bible be made freely available to the general public – you, me, the person we meet in the street – everyone! The whole purpose of the Bible is to lead us to Christ! As Jesus said (referring to the Old Testament), You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are they which testify of Me (John 5.39).

Let’s use this period of Christmas and the New Year ahead to think, to reflect, to value, to give thanks and to pass-on this wonderful Message of God’s love to us in Christ Jesus as indeed revealed to us in the 400 year-old King James Version of the Bible and today in the many modern translations as well.

And recognising that many of us are in the midst of much sadness, I pray that we all may sense God’s loving presence and something of the joy and peace of Christmas at this special time.