Creekside Church
Sermon of January 24, 2016

"Connecting With The Word"
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8, 12 and Luke 4:14-21

Elizabeth Kelsey


Barbara Brown Taylor received an award for one of her sermons from Yale University’s “Distinction in Ordained Ministry”. She shares a response of a listener to that sermon.

A sensible looking fellow, looking slightly stunned, told Barbara that God had spoken to him during the sermon that morning. He was going to quit his job on Monday. He was going to sell his car. He was going to change his life. To which Barbara said, 'Good grief! It was only a sermon! Go get a cup of coffee! Sleep on it! See how you feel in the morning!'

Because we are “old friends” with the scripture by now," Barbara says, “we have forgotten its power. Sometimes we read scripture out loud as though we are reading income tax instructions to each other. There is nothing to get excited about. You can buy dish towels with the Beatitudes on them. You can give Bibles to your children without worrying that what they read there will upset their lives."

Then Barbara ends her sermon with these words. “The word that created heaven and earth, the word that became flesh and dwelt among us, the word that blew through an upper room and set believers' hearts on fire -- that word is still loose in a world that cannot contain it, still seeking those who will hear it and speak it -- waking the sleepers, freeing the prisoners, raising the dead.' Let it be,' God said, and it shall be so. Amen.’”

If you haven’t guessed by now, the theme of worship today is the Bible. The scriptures Walt read show different responses to hearing the Word -- one from the time of Nehemiah and Ezra (which were actually one book in the Torah). The second one is Jesus’ reading of scripture in his hometown, Nazareth.

To understand the full magnitude of the story in Nehemiah, here’s a brief history for context.

“After generations of refusing to live lives of worship and justice (the primary rants of the Minor Prophets), God removed his hand of protection from God’s people. In 597 B.C., Babylon swept in and conquered Judah, destroyed the Jerusalem temple, and took many of the Hebrews into captivity in Babylon.

For 50 years, the Jews learned to live like Babylonians -- learning their culture and alphabet--forgoing temple worship and Torah life. But when Persia conquered Babylon, Ezra persuaded the new King Cyrus to let the Hebrews return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Soon after, Nehemiah persuaded King Artaxerxes to allow him to return and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gates for defense of the city.

“Without knowing this history, we'd be left wondering why the people started crying when they heard the Torah read to them. Were they tears of conviction? Were they tired from standing so long? Were they crying over all the laws in the book of Leviticus?

Here’s the significance. This passage captures the moment the Hebrews knew they were Hebrews again. After 50 years, they were reconnected with how Jews before them lived and worshiped. They had returned to the land God promised their ancestors. Here they were-- standing in God's holy temple, listening to God's voice in the Torah. And so they wept and repented and returned to Yahweh. In that moment they knew the God of the Scriptures, and they understood they were again God’s people. You see, the Torah was a national symbol of Hebrew identity.

"Keep these words ..."
In Deuteronomy 6:1-4, the Hebrews learned the key to their identity with the Almighty. ”Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

The Hebrews were an oral culture, with no access to printed Scripture. So beyond listening to the Torah read in the temple, this was how they kept these words. The reciting, binding and writing the words on their hearts were their devotional life and daily interaction with the law. Although these words were not intended to be taken literally, later Jews would bind a small box to their left arm and head, attached by leather straps. Inside the box were parchment slips inscribed with biblical commandments. Some wore the phylacteries all day, others only during morning prayers.

What would it take for the Bible to impact us like it did in Ezra’s day? For many, our contact with the scripture is on Sunday morning or in an occasional Bible study. A crisis may lead us to the Bible for comfort and guidance. But I hope you are reading beyond those times. Unlike the Hebrews, we have access to scripture in every form imaginable today, even as handy as an app on the smartphone. Our problem is not access, but faithfulness. It means studying its message through the lens of the whole biblical story, not just through individual verses or passages.

In order to keep these words as God instructed, we need to do more than read a few verses every day. To understand the Bible means, quite literally, to “stand under” the Bible -- not to make the Bible our “God,” but our “guide.” Imagine standing under a waterfall, allowing the water to soak you through and through. Just so, we should let the message be absorbed into our lives so that it shapes us. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, wrote another book called “Eat this Book.” The word picture he gives is digesting the word so it metabolizes into acts of love and sharing cups of cold water, as Jesus instructed. It means not only the insight of our brains but the allegiance of our hearts to God.

That day when the people of Judah heard the words of the Torah, they understood who they were and whose they were, and went away rejoicing. The story ends with the familiar line of a camp chorus, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”

In the Bible studies last fall we used an approach called lectio divina. You read a short passage of verses, and listen for a word or phrase to pop out at you. After reading the passage again, you pay attention to how those words touch your senses. A third time through asks “How can I assimilate that scripture into my life? How can I act on it so it makes a difference to others?

You may have heard about the great actor who was asked to recite the 23rd Psalm at a country gathering. With great drama and flair, he articulated the vivid imagery of this familiar psalm. The people were entertained.

Later in the program, an elderly, respected woman of the community was asked to speak. She rose to the stage and apologized because she could think of nothing else to share except the 23rd Psalm.

Her voice cracked as she started, “The Lord is my shepherd.” She stumbled over her words, and the people had to strain to hear her low, uncultured voice. Yet, when she finished, there was not a dry eye in the house.

‘The great actor stood, hugged the old woman and explained the difference. ‘I know the psalm,’ he said, ‘but she knows the shepherd.’”

In contrast to the story in Nehemiah, there is the account from Luke where Jesus preaches in Nazareth. Here’s the follow up to what Walt read.

“And [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[d] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But [Jesus] passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

From amazement to rage. Why the change? Because this hometown congregation could see only one aspect of Jesus -- he was the boy down the street now grown up. They could not see his true image as the Son of God, the God from that passage Jesus read from Isaiah. The Hebrews, on the other hand, saw God and wept because they understood who he was. The people of Nazareth heard Jesus declare who he was and refused to accept it.

These two stories end very differently. Ezra’s closing words to the Hebrews was, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Tears can end in joy, anger doesn’t. The joy that the Hebrews experienced in temple worship had been extinguished for more than fifty years. But the joy of the LORD returned when they heard the word of the LORD and found their identity as God’s people.

Let me close with a word of wisdom from Albert Schweitzer. “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.” For the Hebrews who returned to Jerusalem from exile, it was the Torah read by Ezra. Has someone sometime helped to rekindle your faith and brought joy back into your life? Thank God for them, and if you can, share your gratitude with them as well.

And all the people said “Amen.”


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