Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blowing the Dust Off the Bible

Nehemiah 8:1-12
Luke 4:14-21
Ordinary 3
January 24, 2016

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 . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (8:1, 8)

It had been a long time since anybody there had heard the Bible. That is the premise of a recent movie called “The Book of Eli.” It takes place thirty years after a nuclear war. A loner by the name of Eli has the last existing copy of the Bible. A Voice in his head has directed him to take it to a place where it will be safe.

Well, if you have seen any of those post-apocalyptic movies, you know what is going to happen. Eli will have a difficult time of it. He will be confronted and attacked by any number of bad guys. And when one of those bad guys discovers Eli has a Bible, when that bad guy believes the Bible can be used to manipulate the remaining people of the civilization, he’s going to do whatever he can to get it.

Eli is well-equipped to guard the book. It’s almost as if he is supernaturally protected. But alas, the bad guy gets the book. When he opens it in his lair, he discovers it is written in Braille. To everybody’s surprise, Eli is blind! Meanwhile our hero has made his way to Alcatraz Island, where a monastery has been formed to preserve music, art, and literature. Eli has memorized the scripture. So he recites it, the monks write it down, and the ancient text survives as its protector passes away.

It’s a fantastic story, for all kinds of reasons. And the main reason I like most is the love that Eli has for the scriptures. He’s like one of the ancient scribes in the Bible stories, someone who treasured the scriptures so deeply that he committed it to his heart. He’s like Jesus, who can find his way through the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah. He knows the text. He can find it and read it.

Another reason why I remember that movie is because it reminds me of the story of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a cup bearer for the king of Persia. He was still there, long after his fellow Jews returned from Babylon. You may remember, the Babylonians sacked the city of Jerusalem in 587 BC. They torn down the walls around the city, they pulled down the temple in the center of the city, they took all the riches from the city, and they stole all the smart people and enslaved them in Babylon.

It was an apocalyptic time, and it felt like God had dropped a bomb on his own people. But the exile didn’t last forever, and the people of Israel trickled home. Some of them did, at least. And when they got there, everything they knew was in ruins.

Fast forward a number of years, and that’s where Nehemiah comes in. He is a Jew, he is still in Persia, and he hears the reports of how the homeland is a pile of rubble. It upsets him greatly. In a gracious move, the king sends him back to his ancestral home to rebuild Jerusalem. With efficiency and dispatch, Nehemiah oversees the rebuilding of the city.

And then comes the moment in our story. The scriptures are re-opened for the first time in anybody’s memory. The people of the Bible had gone a long time without their book. So Ezra the priest reads the whole thing to them – at least, as much as they had compiled in 445 BC, or whenever it was.

The psalms weren’t all edited yet, and the book of Daniel wouldn’t be finished for a while, but they had the heart of it – the Torah, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the stories of the wilderness and the coming into the Promised Land, King Saul and King David, and a lot of other kings hardly worth mentioning, the prophets Elijah and Elisha speaking the fire of God, and the other prophets who spoke of the collapse of the nation.

The people leaned forward to listen to it all. Most of them hadn’t heard the Bible in years, some of them had never heard it at all. And when they did, there was a wave of emotion that swept through the great crowd. They were hearing their own Book, as if for the first time; and through their Book, they were hearing the Voice of God. Nehemiah says the people were weeping.

I don’t know if anybody weeps when all of us gather for worship. Oh, sometimes somebody might cry out, “Is this sermon ever going to end?” Trust me, the preacher has often felt the same way. Weeping might feel like an unusual response to the opening of scripture. There have been occasions when packs of Kleenex have been found among our pews, but it doesn’t always happen on a Sunday.

And if it does, why all the tears? Nehemiah doesn’t say. The verb he uses is “bakah,” a Hebrew word that means “to shed tears.”

The tears could be tears of grief. After all, if the people were listening to the early words of Genesis, they heard God say to the heavenly courts, “Let us make all people in the image of God,” and as they look around and see the deprivation and destruction, they see how low God’s own children can fall. The Bible offers a long record of one moment after another where people fall short of heaven’s intent.

By Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are hiding. By Genesis 4, one of their sons kills his brother. By Genesis 6, God says, “I’ve had enough of this,” and decides to wipe out the whole planet with a flood. So I imagine the battered Israelites, gathering in a rebuilt Jerusalem. They hear the story of how the people of God keep going off the tracks, and I wonder if that prompts the tears. Nehemiah doesn’t say.

Maybe the tears aren’t tears of grief. Maybe the tears are tears of hope. If you listen to the Bible, there is hope on every page. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve hide, but God finds them, and then God makes them clothing (3:21). In Genesis 4, Cain kills brother Abel, but God confronts him and puts a mark on his forehead to protect him (4:21). In Genesis 6, God wipes out the world with a flood – but saves Noah, his family, and all the animals needed to re-populate the earth. Then God drops his arrows and puts his bow up in the sky, as a reminder to never do that again.

Listen to the Bible carefully. Whenever there is a description is something terrible that happens, there is usually an accompanying signal that the terrible thing does not have the last word. After all, the prophets said, “Jerusalem is going down, the Babylonian armies are coming,” but now, these people are back home in Jerusalem! I wonder if these might be tears of hope.

But you know what I believe? I believe these are more than the tears of grief or the tears of hope. Certainly there is some grief, certainly there is some hope, but there is something else going on.

Like the day when one of the little girls in my house got all jumbled up inside. She was doing well in second grade, but she was overwhelmed by some mean kids she thought were friends. One day she exploded into tears. So I swept her up in my arms and held her. When we both were able to take a breath, I whispered, “What’s wrong, honey?” She shivered and she shook. Then she blurted out, “I don’t know.”

Ah, I know those tears. Those are the tears of availability. Do you know those tears? They come when you don’t know what else to do, when all the feelings swirl around like a tornado, when you can’t keep everything corked up any more, so you let it all out! That is the moment when we are most available to God. The Jerusalem city walls may have gone back up, but the emotional defenses of the people were cracked open. So they were ready to hear God speak.

And it was just one of those moments.

What I find so helpful about this story from Nehemiah is that Nehemiah knew it wasn’t enough to just have a Bible. Certainly there was a Bible, and it was read all day to people who had never really heard it. The Bible is our central book. When the Presbyterians first formed in Scotland, they had a special person who would parade the Bible into the church. He was called the “beadle,” and he got to bring in the Book. The Bible is our book.  But Nehemiah’s story has more than a Bible.

There was also the moment, the really Big Moment of opening the Bible again for the first time. When Ezra the priest opens the book, it was an enormous worship service. To hear the story, it was quite a pageant. The people are saying “Amen, amen.” They are raising their hands. They are praising the Lord. Ezra has six Levite priests on his right and seven Levite priests on his left. The Bible is opened in the middle of all that. But it was more than a Big Moment.

It wasn’t enough to have a moment, it wasn’t enough to hear the Bible. What made it a Holy Event is that the people who were there “understood” the Bible. As they leaned forward, in tears of grief, hope, and availability, the leaders interpreted the Bible to them. In addition to the fourteen Levite priests, there were thirteen more. Nehemiah gives us a list of all twenty-seven impossible names. And their work was to teach, and interpret, and to “give the sense” of what was read to the people, so the people would understand it.

That’s why this story is so helpful. It reminds us of what most of us already know - that we can’t read the Bible and instantly understand all of it. It takes work to understand the scripture. It doesn’t come naturally. Understanding the Bible requires study of the mind and conversion of the heart. It’s entirely possible to read a passage and miss the point.

Like the bad guy in the movie, “The Book of Eli.” He wants Eli’s last possible copy of the Bible so he can control and manipulate others. That’s not what the Bible is for. The Bible is not a club to hit people over the head and bludgeon them into obedience.

No, the Bible points us toward God. It is given to us in the thoughts and the languages of the people who wrote it down over the course of a thousand years. And when people of faith decided which books to keep, they also preserved it through the ages, and translated it into the languages of new generations and peoples. And today. Nehemiah gives us the clues of what the Bible can do:

·         It names our grief at what we have been and what we have been through,
·         It awakens our hope in the grace and power of God,
·         It invites us to make ourselves available to God, the living God who stays with us in deep wisdom and redemptive mercy.

So it helps to have the book opened to us. That’s why we want our preachers to have an education. That’s why we want our Bible teachers to be prepared. That’s why our church has an education program. That’s why we find ways to study the Bible together. That’s why we honor the scholars who spend their lives studying the book and opening it to us.

We know why this is important. Left to ourselves, we will be confused by a book that is both deep and exasperating. How many people pledge to read the whole Bible, but check out early because the story is just too thick? We have public figures who claim to love the Bible, but don’t know the right way to pronounce “Two Corinthians.”

And there is our own resistance to open our hearts and minds to texts we have always heard. As one of my teachers used to say, “A lot of people who say, ‘Well, here we go again,’ have never been there the first time.”[1] We must be available to God every time we approach this book.

That brings us to the other story for today, the story of Jesus giving his first official sermon in the Gospel of Luke. It’s the Sabbath day in Nazareth, home town of Jesus. He goes to the synagogue, “as was his custom.” It’s the same old synagogue, with the same people he has known all his life. He gets up to read the Bible lesson, and they give him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Same old scroll, they have heard it before.

He finds the place where it is written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor,” to announce release to the prisoners and proclaim God’s jubilee year. They smile and nod, for they have heard that text before.

Then he says, “Today is the day. This is the day of God’s favor.” He opens the scriptures to them. Pretty soon they understand all too well that it is another Holy Moment, that God has come to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.

After all, if anybody has the dust blown off their Bible, if anybody hears the scriptures opened in a way that God is honored and the people can understand, when the dust settles, they will not be the same people they were before.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2011), 51.

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