For those who want a change from the Gospel
Bible Sunday – Nehemiah 8:1-12
Yet another departure from the Sundays of Trinity this week as I base my reflections on Bible Sunday. I said last week that I’m not all that keen on Saints, but I am very keen on the Bible, so let’s see what it has to say about itself.
If I were choosing a Gospel to go with this theme, I would choose the Emmaus Road story from Luke 24, because both that and the Nehemiah reading concern both the power and the limitation of Scripture. Ezra reads from the Torah, the Law of Moses, to the assembled Jews who have returned from exile in Babylon, with dramatic effect. But this raises the question ‘Why?’ Why now do the people fall to their knees in worship and weep in penitence? They must have heard the Law read many times before. Yes, they had been in exile in a foreign land, but that doesn’t mean that they had forgotten the Law. It is usually recognised that the worship of the Synagogue started during the exile, when they could no longer attend the sacrificial worship of the Temple, and Synagogue worship was all about gathering round the Torah in order to learn to live well. Yet on this day, as the Scriptures were read, there was a dramatic effect. What was different?
The same dynamic is present on the Emmaus Road. The Stranger expounded the Scriptures to the two disciples, but it was not until later, as he broke bread, that they were allowed to see who he really was. Only with hindsight did they realise that their hearts had been burning as Scripture was expounded. In each case, it seems that Scripture alone was not enough. There had to be some added ingredient which meant that they wept and their hearts burned. Maybe that ingredient was the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Week by week, in thousands of churches across our land, the Scriptures are read and expounded, but with very little evidence of weeping or burning among those who hear. I wonder what people expect as readings are announced, as the sermon begins. And I wonder what readers and preachers expect. We have probably all known times when something from God’s Word has struck us, or spoken exactly into a situation we’re facing, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. The Bible can be powerful, but so often it seems to be read and expounded with little visible effect on those who hear. Obviously each Sunday can’t be more special than the one before – that’s too much pressure for any church leader! – but might we hear Scripture better if we raised our expectations and prayed more earnestly for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the Liturgy of the Word?
But back to Nehemiah, and there does seem to be a progression through the passage which might shed some light on a strategy for raising the profile of Scripture in our churches. First of all, reading between the lines, there is a sense of hunger for the Word. The people gather, urge Ezra to bring out the scrolls, and listen attentively from day beak until midday, around six hours. No-one was going to tell him off if he went over his Anglican seven minutes. What might we do to help people feel hungry for Scripture?
Secondly, there is respect for the Word. As when we read the Gospel, people stand, but one senses not out of tradition, but out of genuine welcome and reverence. Rarely though do we complete this verse and bow with our faces to the ground at the sight of the Gospel book. Not all churches will go in for lavish Gospel Processions, but are there things we can do to foster this kind of respect?
Thirdly, there is a response to the Word. Conviction of sin sweeps through the crowd and weeping breaks out. I wonder what proportion of our preaching is about disturbing the comfortable as opposed to comforting the disturbed. The Torah is all about how you must live to honour God and please him, and the people clearly realised how far they had come from that kind of a lifestyle. It broke their hearts. Oh for more broken hearts in today’s church!
Finally though, at the urging of those who really got it, there was joy in the Word. Conviction of sin is great, because it leads you out of the dark corner, whereas condemnation for sin keeps you trapped there. The first is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Helper; the second the work of Satan, the accuser. The people are filled with joy because they now understand both the holiness and the mercy of God. Note too that joy leads to generosity, as food and hospitality is shared.
Whether you will be preaching, reading or listening to Scripture tomorrow, let this passage inspire you to pray and prepare for God to speak. Whether weeping or burning, pray for the Holy Spirit to speak powerfully through the Word, to change lives, and to bring freedom and rejoicing.