This is text of the sermon by Margaret King (Bellie and Speymouth Parish Church, Fochabers / Mosstodloch) at St James’ on Sunday 24 January 2016.
The scriptural references are: Psalm 19: 1-4, 7-9; Nehemiah 8: 1-10; Luke 4: 14-21 (New International Version (NIV)).
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
Nehemiah 8: 1-10
8 1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law 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.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
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.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—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 understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy 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 holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Holy Word, Hungry People: Heartfelt Response
Nehemiah is a wonderful and unusual book because it is the memoire/ diary of one of the last leaders of Judaea before the 400 year silence, when we hear nothing official from God until the New Testament.
Nehemiah was born in Persia (present day Iran), one of the generation of exiles who only ever knew about Jerusalem from travellers in that region.
He was in a very responsible position as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes and he would have heard official news, reports and gossip as he served in court.
Nehemiah knew that his contemporary, Ezra, had led a second group of returning exiles and was trying to build up the community with God’s word but that it was hard going.
When news came about the state of Jerusalem’s buildings and defences, Nehemiah was heartbroken and, after praying, felt called to go and help his people.
With the permission and generous support of the king, Nehemiah travelled to Jerusalem and, in fairly short order, organised the successful rebuilding of the walls of the city. But, like Ezra, Nehemiah wanted to revitalize the spiritual community, because he knew physical security was not enough.
The Feast of Trumpets
So, not long after the building work was completed in late summer, hundreds of people gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate their civic new year on the first day of the 7th month.
This was a public holiday called the Feast of Trumpets.
My study Bible dated it very specifically as 08 October 445BC.
Be that as it may, the people assembled as one in the public square and told Ezra to bring the Book of the Law of Moses.
Opinion is divided as to what exactly this was: just the laws of Exodus and Leviticus, or Moses’ sermons from Deuteronomy. I think Ezra would have brought back with him the whole of the Torah, the Pentateuch. Whether Ezra concentrated on the 10 Commandments or some of the great stories of their ancestors in Genesis, we don’t know. But over the course of 5 or 6 hours, from daybreak till noon, he could have covered quite a lot of ground. You get the sense that this was an immensely emotional occasion.
Ezra and his fellow teachers and preachers were on a high platform so that everybody could see and hear them. When Ezra opened the Book, or scroll as it would have been, everybody stood up. And, as Ezra read and prayed and praised God, the people also worshipped and agreed with a hearty ‘Amen! Amen!’ and bowed low to the ground.
This was God’s Holy Word. They were not worshipping the Book, but the God of the Book. They wanted to show their respect for his Word, as we still do in some of our church traditions today. For example:
- In the Coptic Orthodox tradition, the priest holds the Bible above his head.
- In our denomination, it is usual for the preacher to follow the Bible in. God’s Holy Word takes precedence.
- In Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions, the congregation stands to listen to the gospel being read.
Hunger to hear from God
This huge company of God’s people, it seems, were hungry to hear from God.
They had been listening attentively for hours and they wanted to respond.
I don’t quite know how it was actually organised. There were 2 lots of 13 names. At least one set of 13 were Levites who instructed the people. They also read from the Law and worked at making the meaning clear so that the folk could understand what they were hearing. Perhaps some of them translated from the Hebrew into their heart language of Aramaic. I get the impression that the people were really concentrating. They were hungry and thirsty for the Word of God and Ezra and his team were keen to teach and share and apply the scriptures.
The atmosphere is so electric that many are moved to tears. Many may have been convicted of sin.
Perhaps it was getting a bit noisy and chaotic and no doubt after 5/6 hours they were all getting tired, not to say physically hungry too, just as they had been spiritually hungry before.
Nehemiah, who had also been teaching a group, and all the other leaders decided there needed to be a release in the tension.
Perhaps they reminded the people of the Lord’s forgiveness and then told them to go home and rejoice and have a really tasty meal and to remember to share with others both their food and what they had experienced of this day that was sacred to the Lord.
Now the joy of the Lord was to be their strength. And how true that is, in my experience.
There is wonderful fellowship in chewing on God’s Holy Word together. It is awesome and strengthening refreshment which brings great joy to our souls because God reaffirms his presence with us. Our relationship with him somehow becomes more real and relevant.
My commentary on Nehemiah said: “Those who attended this Jerusalem Bible Study meeting led by Ezra and Nehemiah have important things to say to us. They were wholehearted Bible students.” [BST; The Message of Nehemiah; p.128]
The question is – are we?
We need to be hungry people
We need an insatiable appetite for the faithful and relevant interpretation of Scripture, so that we can be strengthened to live out godly lives in the joy of the Lord, as a witness to an unholy and unhappy secular world.
And there is no excuse for us in this day and age. We have numerous understandable translations of the Bible and many resources for personal and group study as well as the freedom to meet and hear His Word in bigger assemblies in church or conference centre.
The question is – are we wholehearted, hungry Bible students?
If not, may God give us such a holy hunger!
Both our congregations are going through times of change. That can be exciting or it can be frightening or a bit of both. But this is absolutely the time, even more than normal, to get into God’s Word, to listen attentively to what he has to say to us.
Our Gospel reading follows something of the same format in a way (Luke 4:14-21 New International Version (NIV)):
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus had been out in the wilderness battling with Satan’s temptations: a mini exile, if you like.
But now, he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.
He had used God’s Holy Word as a weapon to defend himself and defeat the evil one. And now he made his way to where he was brought up, teaching in all the synagogues along the way.
These would have been some services and sermons – probably not the 6-hour variety!
Eventually, he made it to his home synagogue in Nazareth where he again was handed the scroll of God’s Word to read from.
We sense, as with the Jerusalem Bible Study, that the atmosphere in this Sabbath service in Nazareth was electric. Here was a local son who had made good. Everybody was praising him. He was the new Rabbi on the block. Maybe he would head up a new movement that would stand against corrupt Jewish and Roman authorities.
And so Jesus carefully chooses his passage of Scripture from Isaiah and with simple but absolutely assured authority, he reads out what could be his manifesto. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him! You could have heard a pin drop… Is he going to be Nazareth’s man to lead the nation?
And Jesus began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Wow, this was it! A ripple of excitement runs round the synagogue. All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
And they preened themselves and prepared to bask in Jesus’ reflected glory – only to discover that Jesus wasn’t into feeding their or anyone else’s egos, and certainly not his own.
But you will have to read that on your own….
The heartfelt response of obedience
Jesus’ use of his Father’s Word and his reading of it was always followed by the heartfelt response of obedience.
And because he was steeped in it, he was protected from the obvious frontal attacks of Satan and the more subtle snare of the praise and adulation of his home crowd. He was able to discern people’s true motivations and thoughts, whatever they actually said or did.
So how do we revere and respect God’s Word?
By reading and studying it with hungry hearts, alone and with others, with the definite intent to obey, with right actions and attitudes.
Pray that God would give all his people that spiritual appetite. Pray for preachers and teachers of the Bible. Pray for the humble and heartfelt response of obedient trust.
Just imagine the excitement if we all came to Sunday worship with that sense of hunger and expectation. What if we came praying that we would hear directly from God through his Word, whoever the preacher is.
Of course, understanding Scripture is hard at times.
But the reward is experiencing the joy of the Lord giving us strength day by day – and that is awesomely exciting, and reassuring, as we face change and new beginnings.
God bless you richly as you follow Jesus – God’s Holy, living Word – into and through 2016.