Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The People of the Book Nehemiah 8:1-12

Below is the message from Februry 14th. Sorry for the delay in posting it.

Long before there was written language; people would gather together and tell stories. Can’t you imagine people gathered by a roaring fire listening intently as someone weave the words that would become the story? This oral tradition was the way the cultural histories and grand stories of faith were shared. As language found its way to text the literate era was born. The invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1454 was a game changer. Books – in particular the Bible – began to find its way into the hands of the common people. But, even in a literate society like ours there is still something special, about hearing the words on the page brought to life aloud. Most of us can claim powerful childhood memories of a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or librarian reading favorite stories aloud. As they read we could see the characters vividly in our imagination. We knew how the stories would end but it did not matter, there was simply something about hearing the stories read aloud that spoke to a different part of us. Hearing these stories read aloud helped us to remember them and integrate them into our own life story.

This morning we come to a story told in the Book of Nehemiah. This is a book that has grown on me with the passage of years. I think for many it tends to get lost between the grand history books of I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and first I and II Chronicles and the troubling story of Job and the beloved Psalms and Proverbs. But, within its short pages we find a compelling story of a man driven by a deep desire to see his nation restored. He longed to see the walls of the great city of Jerusalem rebuilt. He longed to see the faith of the people who had returned home from exile in Babylon redeemed. Along the way we see how he encourages people to rise out of their misery and to reclaim the joy of their covenant relationship with God. We head our focal story read aloud in our midst. We experienced a bit of what the people would have experienced that morning – the word was read aloud and found life among the people.

Let me remind you that the story begins; 1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. 2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

The temptation is to quickly translate what we are hearing into a moment like this one, with everyone seated nicely and comfortably, ready and waiting. There are some places where this is true, but man more where the picture would have been dramatically different. The fact that Nehemiah chose the Water Gate for Ezra to read the Book of Law of Moses is important. A gathering at the temple would have quickly broken people up based on their gender and their place in the religious. Like this sanctuary this morning, the Water Gate was a place that everyone would have been welcome. Men, women and children of all classes and religious standing could be included. Nehemiah and Ezra understood that there was power in God’s word. They were about to see it play out before their eyes.

Ah, but there is two major ways this encounter with the Book of the Law of Moses was profoundly different. First, for many whose life had been shaped by the Babylonian exile this would have been the first time they would have heard the word of God spoken through the books written by/through Moses. Second, there were no pews or seats for the people. They would have had to find their place on the ground. Third….did you listen to how long their listened attentively….from daybreak to noon…four to five hours of listen and considering what it meant for them. I truly believe that we have become so locked into the time and structures of worship that we are focused on finishing rather than to hearing – to heading out, rather than to lingering in the presence of the Spirit and the power of God’s word.

Our story continues; 4 Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood ….and then the passage begins a list of names. There is a part of me that wants to rush past the names, but they are there for a reason. They represent key religious and cultural leaders that together symbolize that the whole of the nation was present to hear the reading of God’s word. What would that list look like in our context? What would we do that we would all understand was so important that EVERYONE made it a priority to be there?

5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. The hearing of God’s word on its own was so important; the worship of God was so vital; that they lifted their hands and then bowed down to the ground in humility and reverence before God. It is interesting that when people do that within these walls some think it is a break for proper decorum. The people gathered to hear God’s word that morning would have considered it a break in proper decorum to do anything less. Perhaps we have become so trapped in our Victorian understanding of proper social decorum that we have bound ourselves from expressing true joy and authentic humility and reverence to God.

The story continues; 7 The Levites—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. The Word of God moved from the platform to the midst of the people. Those who had study the Scripture went out among the people to help them understand. While our story focuses on the Torah, those first five books of the Bible, this same power; this same sense of the Word of God for the People of God is true for the whole of the Bible. Sadly, I fear that the greatest stubbing block to the Baptist witness in our nation was the battle over the term “inerrancy.” This term was given centrality in the conversation of evangelical Christians after the production of the Chicago State on Biblical Inerrancy. What saddens me is that fellowships were broken and leaders torn down over a word that does not exists with the bounds of this Book. Even the Chicago Statement is rife with required explanations and clarifying exceptions – so many, including me; find that it has little real value. The result has been a cultural bibliolatry- where people have sought to make this book so high and holy that it is of little earthly good. Hear me clearly, I believe that the Bible is the living Word of God; the central means by which those of us who are the children of God hear from God and are instructed by God. I claim every word for the Bible that the Bible uses for itself. I hear with authority the words from 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17 that tells us that the Scripture is the inspired word of God, breathed by God, and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in the right way of life, so that the people of God may be competent and capable, equipped to do the task that God has given for them to do. . It is Holy because its author is nothing less than God. It is wholly inspired because every word, every passage, every book is the inspired word of God. But for some the Book itself is seen as so Holy that it is seen on par with God. It is not! God alone is God! For some it becomes a tool of spiritual manipulation and guilt. It is not. It is designed to bring people to God rather than to those who proclaim their view of the word of God. We must have no room for those who would use this Book to place themselves over and above the congregations they serve or the people they speak to through television. We must not make see this Book as so revered that it is distant to our daily lives, nor so common that we miss the power and the presence of God that drips within it. Our task is to be a people shaped by the Book, but first and foremost, the people of God that come to the Book seeking a fresh word from God. Our task is to study and help one another to make it clear and help understand the meaning in a way that shapes us, challenges us, and changes us.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Can you imagine that the mere hearing of the Book of Law of Moses was so powerful that weeping and mourning broke out because they saw the distance between what God called for and who they were. It is easy to get caught in the guilt game. But Nehemiah and Ezra wanted something very different. They told them it was time to throw a party, to celebrate that the Word of God was among them and for them. Hear again; Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. The heart of the message is that when we meaningfully engage in hearing and understanding the word of God we can find greater joy in our relationship with God. For some it is time to dust off the Book and open it again to hear God speak. For others it is a day to choose to be part of a Sunday school class, a small group, or Wednesday Bible study – any of the places where we help each other hear and understand what God is saying to us. For many, today is the day to seize the opportunity to take part in the Its Time initiative, claiming 20 minutes a day to hear the word of God read to you so that you might have a fresh encounter with God’s living Word. This letter from God to God’s people stands ready to speak into your life and invite you into a fresh encounter with God. Let’s throw a party because we have chosen to hear the Word of God – to hear from God – and celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Amen!

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