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