January 24, 2016 Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Rev. Catherine Purves
I know that you have all come here today of your own free will. No one forced you to venture out on this cold, snowy morning in order to hear the word of the Lord. Perhaps some of you came out of a sense of duty. It’s Sunday, and on Sunday it is our job as faithful church members to show up. And so here we are, the ever-reliable few, who feel that we should be here, and so we are. If you think you did the right thing in making the effort to come to church this morning, that’s understandable. Some of you might even have been feeling a tiny bit proud that you made it, that is, until you heard the surprising message of our Scripture reading for this morning.
Last week, you may remember, we read from the book of Isaiah about the return of the exiles from Babylon. Israel was given new and hopeful names that reflected God’s promise to bring them home from captivity. In today’s reading, the people are back in Israel, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and the governor, Nehemiah, and Ezra, the priest and scribe, are helping the returned exiles to resume their life of faithful service in the land that God gave to them. One central act was vital for this fresh start, this new life: the reading of the law of Moses, the Bible.
Now here is the first surprising thing in our passage. Ezra and Nehemiah, the acknowledged leaders of the people, didn’t decide to gather the people and subject them to a marathon reading of the Scriptures. Once the people were back home and settled, the book of Nehemiah tells us, “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.” The people themselves asked to hear the story and to be reminded of what faithful living was all about. They didn’t just show up on a day set aside for Bible reading. They organized this community event and then eagerly stood from early morning until midday as Ezra read the scrolls. And our text tells us that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
The second interesting observation we might make could easily be missed, because the people who decide which verses to include in our suggested readings for each Sunday, kindly eliminated verses four and seven. I say that this was a kindness, because these two verses list several unpronounceable names, twenty-six, to be exact. The first thirteen were the men who were standing on the platform next to Ezra. The next thirteen, along with an unknown number of Levites, proceeded to help the people understand what was read.
This was, quite obviously, a community affair. The people asked to have the word of God read to them, and then they stood for hours on end, with attentive ears, listening to their Scriptures. Ezra read aloud the law of Moses, but he was flanked on his left and his right by other members of the community, laypeople who were on the platform with him and who probably helped with the six hours of reading. Then a large number of additional people interpreted what was read. Nehemiah says, “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This was a huge interactive Bible study. Everyone was involved, and they were all eagerly trying to figure out what God was telling the people through their Scriptures.
The third surprise was the spontaneous response of the crowd once the word was read and interpreted. Ezra praised the Lord God for the word that was given to them. Then all the people said “Amen! Amen!” and they lifted their hand above their heads. Then they bowed their heads in worship and lay prostrate on the ground. According to what I read about this passage, the raised hands indicate expectation and dependency. Bowing down on the ground indicates obedience and submission. The crowd had a very emotional response to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. Not only were the people standing, waving, and bowing, but they were also weeping and mourning over their failure to keep the law and thus to honor God. This doesn’t sound like one of our regular Sunday services. Does this perhaps say something about how we relate to the Bible?
I’m sure that we have all had the experience of standing in front of the bedside table in a motel room and opening the drawer and finding a Bible. The Gideons are still alive and well and active, placing a King James Bible in virtually every hotel room in the country. I have often wondered what good that does. Would an unbeliever who stumbled upon a copy of the Bible while putting his underwear in a drawer know what to do with it? Would a traveling Christian who was passing through town without her own copy of the Bible be relieved to find that one was readily available right there in her motel room along with the local phonebook? Can the random, lonely people who find those archaic translations of the Bible in impossibly small print actually benefit from the Gideons’ well-intentioned gifts? Or is reading and understanding the Bible a more complicated endeavor?
If our passage from Nehemiah is a true reflection of the appropriate way to read the Bible, then we have to say that more is involved. The first thing that we saw in Nehemiah’s description of this Bible reading event was that it was a corporate experience. The people came together and asked Ezra to read the Scriptures. Sitting alone in a motel room and leafing through a Gideon’s Bible while you’re waiting for the 11:00 news hardly compares.
The second thing that was striking about Nehemiah’s account of this mass Bible reading was that there were thirteen teachers plus a number of Levites who wandered through the crowd explaining the text as it was being read so that the people could understand. The Bible is a very difficult book. You won’t make sense of it without help. Bible reading actually requires Bible study. Even sitting faithfully and listening to a sermon is not an adequate effort if you are not grappling with the text yourself and learning from others who are equally engaged in the hard work of Bible study. It is certainly not enough to simply revere the Bible or to give it pride of place on your bookshelf if you are not being changed by it as you interact with others who are also seeking the truth.
Finally, what Nehemiah was describing was what you might call a full-body Bible workout. The people were totally caught up in this event of Bible reading. The standing and bowing and waving and prostrating of themselves show that they were not just sitting calmly in a pew thinking about what Ezra was reading. They couldn’t have sat still in a pew if their lives depended on it. The Scriptures rocked them to the core. They wept and mourned; they were driven to repentance; and they realized what they had been missing by not listening to the word of the Lord. What Nehemiah described for us was the life-changing, community-building, world-transforming experience of encountering the living God through the Scriptures.
Can something like that happen here and now on a cold, snowy day in January? Why not? All we have to do is get beyond the words on the page. That is, we need to recognize that the Scriptures are more than an historical record, more than engaging stories, more than wise sayings, more than a collection of poems and hymns. If the Bible is the word of the Lord then it is the way that God continues to speak directly to us. It connects us to the living God, enabling us to know Jesus and experience the Holy Spirit. It draws us into that full-body encounter with the truth, and the truth is a person, not just an idea. In the Bible we are confronted by Jesus himself. Whenever we gather to read the Scriptures together we should expect to be rocked to the core.
Annie Dillard, kind of a modern-day Nehemiah, described what encountering God in this way in the church is really like. She asks provocatively, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?” This is what she recommends when we gather to hear the word of God,
“…we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Are you ready for that? It might be safer just to leave your Bible on the shelf. It might be less threatening to read it on your own in the privacy of your home or the occasional motel room. It might be easier to skip the difficult bits and to read only the stories you like or the Psalms that are uplifting. It might seem like you are doing enough when you come out most Sundays and listen to the sermon. But how much more exciting it could be if we all put on our crash helmets and lashed ourselves to the pews and listened with attentive ears, and then discovered what it is really like to encounter Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Are you ready for that?