For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 3 – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
As I mentioned, in the past couple of weeks I completed my PhD thesis, which explores Anglican churches which don’t like Anglican liturgy and so minimise it and replace it with a stream of worship songs. One of the many discoveries I made during my fieldwork visits to churches was the diminished place for the reading of Scripture. Almost all of the churches I visited would call themselves evangelical, yet Bible reading in the context of worship was often either absent altogether, or limited to odd verses flashed up on the screen during the sermon. This seemed a very strange thing to be happening in churches which would proudly base their faith on the Word of God. Today’s OT reading perhaps suggests a corrective.
The date in v.1 is important: the 1st day of the 7th month. Nowadays Jews mark this date as Rosh Hashannah, the beginning of the New Year: then it would have been the Feast of Trumpets. But with the rebuilding of the city walls completed a few days earlier (6:15) this seemed like a great opportunity for the leaders to remind the people that they do not live by buildings alone, but by the words which God has spoken. So a public reading is called, and so central is this that the people are content to listen for 6 hours as the Scriptures are read. In this story there are a few things we might learn about the importance of God’s written word, which might help to counter its neglect in the Church today.
Firstly, it is interesting to note that by this stage it had become a written Word. The phrase ‘The Book of the Law of Moses’ in v.1 is unique, and signals the move from an oral to a written form of the Law. Ezra ‘brings out’ the Book, and ‘opens’ it before the people, who stood in reverence before it. Many Anglicans similarly find ways of reverencing the physical book of the Bible in the Eucharist, while others avoid it at all costs in fear of idolatry. But there is something important about the Law of God having become fixed and authoritative. This is not about what I happen to remember: it is what God has said, at least until we speaks again through his Son. Nowadays, of course, we have much greater access to the Bible, through books and phone apps, yet it is apparently still only minimally read by Christians.
Secondly, note how it is an inclusive Word. Until a few years ago in English the word ‘man’ was taken to mean both men and women, and the same is true of the Hebrew term. But here (v.2) the text deliberately, and needlessly, mentions both men and women. The addition of ‘others’ in v.3 almost certainly means children, rather than 21st century takes on various uncertainties of gender. There are also two different groups of people present: those who are literate themselves, maybe 3% of the population, and those who can’t understand the words but nevertheless listen attentively, until it is explained and interpreted for them. This really is for everybody, and special care is taken, and provision made, for those who need extra help.
Thirdly, it is a powerful Word. We don’t know exactly what parts of the Torah were being read, but the result was mourning and weeping among the audience. Was this because of conviction of sin, the realisation of just how far people had strayed from God’s ways? Or was it about painful memories of an earlier reading, recorded in Ezra 9 and 10, when those guilty of intermarriage were told to separate from their foreign wives and discard their dual-heritage children? Whatever was going on, the people were clearly cut to the heart by the Law, and had to be reminded that conviction of sin is always a good thing, as it leads to the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. It was this renewed experience of the mercy of God which led to another Jewish Festival, Simchat Torah, ‘the joy of the Law’, which to this day sees the Jewish community dancing in the streets with scrolls held aloft.
What a shame, then, that Christians, and especially some evangelical Christians, seem to pay so little attention to the Bible that it is minimised in public worship. Maybe it if was given a more central place, physically treated with more respect, and taken more seriously, we might see more of both weeping and joy.