Opening the Book
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: January 24, 2010
copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
It’s not every Sunday that you get to hear a sermon including a reading from Nehemiah, so you may want to take advantage of this rare opportunity and pay special attention! Today we have the stories of two proclamations, one in the Old Testament, the other in the New. In one, the people wept as they heard the Word read and interpreted, in the other, the people would soon become enraged enough to want to throw the preacher – who was Jesus – off the cliff. No safe task, this preaching business. And each time, every time, from those times to this, it all starts with the book, with the Bible.
Now, if we are like most people, our recollection of the history of Israel around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah – as well as the content of their writings – may be just a little hazy. Actually, it may be more than hazy. It may be a blank slate!
So here is a brief rundown of the setting of the Nehemiah reading: Ezra and Nehemiah were two of the leaders of the people of Judah who helped the Israelites returning from their years of exile in Babylon to reclaim not only their land, but their religious observances as well. In 581 B.C., the Babylonian armies had destroyed Jerusalem and carried anybody who was anybody off into exile way down in Babylon, modern Iraq. During their years there, many fell away from the faith, but there were many who remained faithful in their worship of God, even though they could no longer worship in their Temple. So they began to worship in a new way. It was during that time that what we now know as synagogue worship first began to take shape, a sort of portable worship of God which used to take place only in a fixed Temple. And it is from synagogue worship that Christian worship later developed following the resurrection of Jesus and the evangelism of the apostles.
In Nehemiah it says that the book “was read clearly.” Then it says that the Levites – they were the priests who just lately had regained a Temple to be priests in – the Levites “gave the sense” of what was read, “so that the people understood the reading.” They gave the sense of it.
As long ago as 400 years before Christ, probably longer, people were aware that writings they revered did not assist them much in faith unless they were read aloud for all to hear, especially since most people could not read for themselves, and had no access to books anyway. And even then, these writings were not just to be read, but interpreted, taught, as a means to fuller understanding of their faith.
Why must scripture be interpreted? The question isn’t frivolous. I have to admit I ask it under my breath sometimes as I prepare sermons. One obvious reason is that we don’t live in the times in which the scriptures were written. Probably the majority of our problems in understanding scripture stem from our ignorance of the time and people for whom scripture was first written and read.
This problem is not unique to us, it was faced 25 centuries ago by the early returnees from captivity in Babylon. The scriptures were written in Hebrew. The language in Babylon was Aramaic, a language similar to Hebrew, only in the way that, say, modern Spanish or Italian is similar to Latin. The language may be similar, but Spaniards don’t speak Latin, and neither did the returning Jews speak Hebrew. Two generations of captivity caused the language of the Babylonians to replace Hebrew as their everyday speech. This was as true of the two generations that had lived in Babylon as it would be of any immigrant group that has come to America. Second or third generation children may return to their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland, may even speak a little of the language, but there is a very good chance they will need a lot of interpretive help when they get there.
We are in a similar situation when it comes to our Bible. Since I suspect that none of us fluently speak the Bible’s original languages of Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek, it is necessary that someone translate for us – which in itself requires a good deal of interpretation – and that someone read to us, and someone interpret what has been read. It is not enough to have the book, it must be read. It is not enough to read the book, it must be understood. And even understanding is not enough, for in every generation, the words of the Bible must be made plain for a new time, so it must be interpreted. Yet beyond the reading and speaking and interpretation, there must be something more. Action must follow words. Ezra’s reading and the interpretation of the words were followed directly by action: The people were to go, eat, share what they had with those who had nothing, and find that the joy of the Lord was in their strength, a strength expressed in the very act of compassion when one shared with another.
Understanding what it meant to have the word read, understood, interpreted, and acted upon, we can gain a better perspective on the situation in which Luke reported that Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth.
A few years ago when I was serving as pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Salem, across the street from the capitol, on the first day of a new legislative session, I was asked to give the opening prayer for the state Senate. Afterward, I slipped over to the House side to hear the opening inspirational moment there. This very passage was read from the New Testament. Release for the captives and liberty for the oppressed didn’t have much of a chance during that legislative session, which focused a tremendous amount of time on toughening up sentencing laws. Even so, these words are an important foundation upon which a commitment to justice must stand.
We are all justifiably proud that most of the world identifies America as a land of freedom. Yet freedom and justice, together, form twin columns that support our form of government and all institutions we hold dear. Freedom is something we talk about. It is an issue that is writ large in the words of Isaiah, which Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue that day. But as Nehemiah’s book recorded, truth spoken must be given legs to become truth enacted. Freedom may be spoken, but it requires a commitment to justice bring it to pass.
I once read about a curious baptismal font in the chapel of Belmont Abbey College, a Roman Catholic school in Charlotte, North Carolina. The font is hollowed out of a huge piece of granite. Mounted on the rock is a sign that reads, “On this rock, slaves were once traded. From this rock, people are now baptized and set free in Christ.”
I have spent almost my entire adult life responding to the call to proclaim the good news of freedom in Christ to a world that is in desperate need of hearing it. But the word has to be more than proclaimed. It has to be lived. I think that is why Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Because of Jesus, Freedom – and its necessary twin, Justice – are possible. Where the word of Jesus is proclaimed, the people are somehow empowered to set aside self in a commitment to lives lived for others. In ancient times, Aristides described the early Christians for the Emperor Hadrian this way:
They love one another. They never fail to help widows: they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the one who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.
Most of us are inclined to see the scene of that famous sermon in Nazareth from Jesus’ perspective as he stands before the congregation, reading the lesson from Isaiah. I know I do that. But we have to remember we are not Jesus. “I am not standing with him in the pulpit, but am sitting with you in the congregation ... Jesus say[s] that God loves even outsiders, foreigners, non believers ... As a pastor, I spend my day ministering to my own flock. You are the people who called me to be your pastor, the people to whom I am accountable. More than that, I ... want to please you and serve you. But here is Jesus reminding me that, while I may be content to serve you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s love is even more inclusive.”
Our congregation, like any congregation, finds itself in a city where the majority of people certainly aren’t Presbyterians, the majority do not claim a church affiliation, thousands do not even share our language. We know we are called to speak the good news to all who would listen, and to speak it – as those Levites did long ago – so that others will understand the words as well as hear them.
As a pastor, I’m supposed to try to make the ministry of this church available to all who would come. But I realize that I am not alone in my calling to this vital task. I realize that I am not the only one meeting up with those unknown people out there. The ministry of Christ needs your help to speak to the good news that God’s love is inclusive, open beyond these walls. I believe that as we commit ourselves to each other to announce the acceptable year of the Lord in Vancouver, that we will reach others.
Please commit yourselves today to pursue the vision of a church that extends itself to others. And pray with me that we may receive the strength we need as a church of Christ to reach people with the word of Good News which awaits them in the One whose presence opens to us the saving Word of our faith, whose presence among us fulfills the very words of the prophets.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 [NRSV] —
1...all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Luke 4:14-21 4:14 [NRSV] —
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”