January 23, 2022

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

Nehemiah 8:8

The prophet Isaiah spoke into our hearts last week; some hearts that may be lacking hope, and other hearts that are seeking to spread that hope to others.  He spoke into a land that was full of hopelessness, immediately after the people had returned from their exile in Babylon.  They came back to the land their ancestors had known, some full of hope for a new start, and others wondering why they left the land that had become their home.  The ones who had not wanted to leave reinforced their opinion when they saw that the land they were moving to was in devastation.  Yet Isaiah still spoke words of hope to the people through his prophecy.  He told the people that God would rejoice over them there, and that Jerusalem would be a crown of beauty in God’s heart (Isaiah 62:3, 5).

Nehemiah spoke a similar hope.  The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were both written during the same time as Third Isaiah: A time when the temple and the city wall are being rebuilt after the exile.  Hope is slowly being found in this rebuilding itself throughout these two books.  Yet in the scripture reading for today, in Nehemiah 8, there is no mention of the temple building itself.  It tells us a different story: The people “told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).  The scribe did not bring the book of his own accord.  The people who were gathered asked for it.  They wanted to hear the word of the Lord read in their hearing.  In these days, no one had a copy of the Bible for their own personal possessions like we do today, so the only way that they heard the book read was through oral readings by scribes and religious leaders.  They hungered for the word of the Lord in this moment.  They hungered for the hope that they found by hearing the word of God.  They sought encouragement.  Should we be any different today?  The only negative aspect of having Bibles published everywhere is that it is not as special to us as it once was.  We take it for granted.  We have it, so it can sit on a shelf at home collecting dust.  Perhaps we should change our attitudes, so that we can really see how much of a blessing it is to own a copy of the Bible.  So many before us could only dream of such a thing.  We are lucky compared to them.  The first takeaway, then, is that we should take advantage of the extraordinary privilege that we have been given.  The second is that we need to re-establish the same hunger for the word of God as the people did after their return from Babylon.  I have mentioned that I want to focus on prayer this year because I know that it is a very important way of establishing our relationship with God, and we should all feel that we are empowered to engage in prayer.  Today, the scriptures place particular emphasis on the word of God as found in scripture.  It is all the word of the Lord.  It is all God communicating with us.  In the next weeks, within the spirit of Epiphany, we will be searching for hope amid the various resources that we have available to us.  Where can we find hope?  Where can our hunger for hope be fulfilled?  Today, we hear that our hunger for hope can be fulfilled in Scripture.  In the coming weeks, we will discuss other ways that hope is fulfilled by our coming to God.

Hear the way that the people of Jerusalem greeted the reading of the book of the Lord: “When Ezra opened it, all the people stood up.  Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands.  Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:5-6).  This reminds me of the way that the book was greeted during Catholic mass, which I had the opportunity to attend many times while at Siena College near Albany, New York.  It is a Catholic college.  It is also a Franciscan school, and I learned many valuable insights about their way of life.  But at mass, the book was brought in by the chaplain, and as he walked, he held it high above his head while the choir sang a worship song.  The attending parishioners often joined in.  Before the book was even opened, it had been lifted up, God had been praised, and the people had been humbled before it.  I’ve never seen a UCC church do that, but is there not something to learn from this reverence toward the word of the Lord?  I like praying before the reading of scripture to remember who is giving us this word, and to pray that we may hear it wisely.  We should always greet the word of the Lord with reverence and awe, no matter where we are.  No, we do not need to stand every time it is read, although we may.  We do not need to sing about it all the time, although we might be moved to.  We do not have to have only ordained people read the word of God either, as they did back then.  But we need to hear the word of God with reverence and awe.  When we grow tired of it, we will cease to find hope in what God has done, and with that we will cease to find hope in what God is about to do and is still doing.

We may be confused by the verse of our selection today that notes, “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law” (Nehemiah 8:9).  Were they grieving?  Were they upset?  Were they mourning?  It was likely a combination of the three.  First, they were grieving the state of the Holy City and praying for God’s promise to be revealed.  Second, they may have recognized their own failures in believing in the promises of God.  And third, they may have been moved to emotional tears because of how sweet the word of God really is.  We have the same responses to hearing the faithful proclaim the hope of God.  Some of us see the destruction around us, with the chaos that we live in, and grieve the state of the world.  Others of us recognize our unfaithfulness to God, not in terms of believing in other idols necessarily but of lacking confidence and trust in God.  Many of us are moved to those kinds of happy tears that we get when we are so happy that we start to cry.  We become emotional.  Perhaps we can relate to all three.  The problem arises if we are not moved at all by hearing the word of God.  If you hear the word of the Lord, and do not feel it speaking for itself as it seemed to among those in Jerusalem, either you are not listening carefully, or you value something else more than the word of God.

Our hunger and hope for something new can be found in Scripture.  We are fortunate to have the access to God’s word that we do.  We should take advantage of that and spend some time with Scripture each day, or at least as regularly as we are able to.  When we do, I hope that we hear it in the context of those who heard it in that particular context, as well as our own context.  If you are not one to express emotion outwardly, that is fine, but if you are one, you are encouraged to let that emotion out.  Whether you want to raise your hands in praise, or clap to a song, there is nothing stopping you other than the fear that you do not want to be the only one.  But we are still missing one critical element of the Nehemiah story.  In verse 8, we are told that interpretation of the reading was given so that the people might understand.  You are not expected to understand everything that you read and/or hear the first time you read it.  That may be encouraging for some of you.  You need to seek out explanations.  You need to read commentaries for more in-depth study.  Choose a particular Study Bible where you can read the short notes about the text.  Journey with other Christians who are studying the same text as you.  These authors and friends will add context to the reading and help you apply what you read to your daily life as a Christian.

There are many, many reasons to be discouraged.  The world is in crisis.  There is violence and sickness and hunger everywhere.  And we do not have the adequate resources to respond in the way that the church should because there are not enough people in the church.  And more people do not want to join the church because they do not see the church being the church.  It is a vicious cycle.  But we will just burn ourselves out even further if we try to be everything to everyone and not refocus and look at our foundation.  We need to look at our foundation as the church, and as individuals.  At our annual meeting last week, we talked about focusing on ourselves for a year.  We want to care for our building, organize what we have here, and prepare our space for the vision that we hope for.  We want to organize the spaces picturing them filled again with people, classes, and activity.  As we focus on our own home, it is with the vision that we will use it to change peoples’ lives, just as it has for almost 192 years.  We should have the same vision for ourselves.  We are part of that vision; we also are part of God’s mission to change lives.  But to do so properly, we need to be properly grounded in Scripture.  We need to have a strong foundation.  So, when you read Scripture, ask about what you do not understand.  You may have heard this before, but there is no such thing as a dumb question.  Ask.  Ask God.  Ask a friend.  Ask the pastor.  Ask whoever you want.  But do ask when you do not understand.  Further, try to hear the words of the Lord in awe and reverence, just as the Jews held their scared scripture in faithful awe and reverence toward God.  And finally, do not gloss your eyes over Scripture and call it quits.  This is what I did when I set myself the challenge to read the Bible in one year.  But I have gotten a lot more out of the books reading and discussing them slowly through our Bible Study.  Read and study Scripture.  Talk about it.  Read about what other people have to say.  Come to our Wednesday Bible Study.  The more that are able to come, the merrier it will be, even if you just keep your video off and just want to listen, but not speak.  Give God every opportunity to reach you.  We will not hear the voice of God if we decide that we do not hear the voice of God.  God is still speaking, giving us hope for a better tomorrow, and life for a better today.

The scene at the Water gate is nothing short of a revival.  The heart of the Lord has been renewed in the hearts of the people.  All the people were gathered to witness to this event.  May there be a revival in our own hearts in in our own community as well.  There is no east.  There is no west.  There is no limit to how far the word of the Lord can reach.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
8:1 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.
8:2 Accordingly, 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.
8:3 He 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.
8:5 And 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.
8:6 Then 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.
8:8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
8:9 And 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.
8:10 Then 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.”

Psalm 19
19:1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
19:2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
19:3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
19:4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
19:5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
19:6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
19:9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
19:10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
19:11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
19:12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
19:13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Luke 4:14-21
4:14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
4:15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
4:16 When 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,
4:17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
4:18 “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,
4:19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
4:20 And 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.
4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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