Summit Presbyterian Church
January 27, 2013
Nehemiah 8: 1-12
The Power of the Word
A number of years ago I was the reader of the New Testament lesson at a friend's wedding in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At the Friday night rehearsal, we were going through our paces. Kids were running around, the pastor was telling people where to stand, the musicians were doing a run-through. It was then my turn to "practice" the reading -- I believe it was Corinthians 13. I read the scripture, and when I looked up I saw that everyone in the sanctuary was standing and looking at me. At first I thought I'd done something wrong, but when I finished the pastor went back to stage directing, people started talking and I realized that this must be what Lutherans do - or at least Lutherans in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When the New Testament is read, everyone stands and looks at the reader. And sure enough, at the wedding, the congregation stood and looked at me when I read. And in the Sunday morning worship service, everyone stood and looked at the reader of the gospel. I'm not suggesting we do that here. But I thought of those Lutherans when I read this passage from Nehemiah about a worship service and the reading of the Word before the people.
It was the people who wanted to hear the Word. The service wasn't scheduled by Ezra the scribe or Nehemiah the governor. All the people gathered together in the square and told Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses. He did so accordingly, and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. When Ezra opened the book, all the people stood up. When Ezra blessed the Lord, all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands, bowing their heads and worshipping the Lord with their faces to the ground. And then, while the people remained in their places, all those lay teachers -- Levites whose names I didn't try to pronounce - helped the people understand the law. They read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that people understood the reading.
And then all the people wept. It doesn't say why they wept. Perhaps they wept because they saw how far their lives had strayed from the commandments of God. Perhaps they wept because they were so moved by the stories of God's faithfulness to God's people. Perhaps they wept because they were finally back in Jerusalem, the Holy City. Protected by a sturdy wall they had spent months restoring. Worshipping in the temple they had rebuilt on the ruins of the old. Finally at home, hearing those familiar words. We don't know why they wept, but Nehemiah, Ezra, and those who taught the people all said the same thing: "This day is Holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared (in other words, pack styrofoam clamshells for shut-ins) for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." And so they did -- all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
This is the good news of this reading: God has given us a Word we can understand. God has not left us to our own devices. God has not completely shrouded God's self in mystery. God has not abandoned God's creation, leaving us alone, without guidance or instruction. God has given us a Word that tells us how to live. A Word that tells us of God's grace and forgiveness, and that holds out hope and comfort. A Word that assures us peace, justice and love will prevail. We receive this Word in scripture; we receive it through the living Word, the risen Christ; we receive it through the Holy Spirit. Because of God's Word, we don't have to wonder who we are or what we're to do with our lives. We're children of God. Called to love and care for one another, to work for justice and peace. Called to care for creation, and to share the gospel - to render our lives as thanksgiving to God. God is speaking, in a Word we can understand. If we truly believed this, if we fully trusted in the Word, we would also be weeping and rejoicing, day after day and Sunday after Sunday.
I'll admit -- it's not as easy as Nehemiah makes it sound. Even with the help of preachers and teachers God's Word is not self-evident. The scriptures speak of people long ago, in cultures that are opaque to us. It's not always clear how the world of the Bible connects with our world, what "laws," if any, we should apply literally, who we should see as a model and who is actually a negative example. Some of the stories move and comfort us, but others are downright appalling. We often can't agree on what God is saying, even on important matters like war and sex.
But our understanding doesn't need to be complete. It doesn't need to be perfect and it will always be provisional. But God has given us gifts so that we can understand enough for our joy and salvation and the life of the church. The gifts of intelligence, imagination, and love. The gift of each other to share interpretations. The gift of the Holy Spirit, which illumines the Scripture for us. The gift of the living Word in Jesus Christ, the example of his life.
This Lent, the worship committee, the Session, invites you, invites us, to go deeper into the Word. To make our ears attentive to the law and the gospel, just as that congregation was in Jerusalem was so many centuries ago. We can start with a devotional I mention in the announcements. Its a simple one, that suggests one scripture passage each day from one of the four gospels. There is an interpretation of the passage, not the final or only interpretation, but a paragraph to explore the reading, followed by a short prayer. You may also take an Upper Room Magazine - many people in the congregation have told me how helpful it is. You may simply want to read the gospel of Luke from start to finish, and I can suggest a study guide. We will also have a list of other readings. Our Wednesday bread and broth will focus on prayer, prayer which is essential for understanding God's Word. And of course come to church, where we read the Bible together, and I offer an interpretation, aided by scholars - not a final word by any means but a starting point I hope, for your thinking and prayer. God's promise is sure. God's Word - in the Bible and in Christ - can be understood. It may make us weep, but it will also give us strength and joy in the Lord.