United Benefice Puddletown
Sunday 29th October 2017
Nehemiah 8.1-12; Matthew 24.30-35
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
This is the Gospel of the Lord
Praise to you, O Christ
We’ve said and sung those two responses in our service today. I wonder what you were thinking when you uttered them.
Perhaps you responded out of habit and while your lips were moving, you brain was elsewhere.
Perhaps you were worried about getting the notes right in the sung response.
Perhaps you weren’t quite ready for them and by the time you’d got the right place in the service booklet, everyone else had finished.
Or perhaps you said those words and sung them really meaning what you said and sung.
Maybe your whole heart was in them and you really were thanking God for his Word, and praising Jesus for his good news – which after all is what the word Gospel means.
Today is Bible Sunday – a chance for us to think about our Scriptures, our attitude towards them, the place in our faith that they have and the good news that they tell.
I wonder when you open your Bibles – and here I’m assuming that they are opened in the week – if not, perhaps today is the day to ask why not – what attitude you do it with.
I’m always amazed and humbled that, however many times I read Bible passages, if I do it with the right attitude, there is always more to gain from them.
It’s one of those books that keeps on giving, and that never runs out of inspiration – a bit like those fairy tales about the magic porridge pot, though of course similes are sometimes limited in their application.
I wonder when you think about the Bible, whether you think it’s a boring book with no relevance, or a book you ought to read more but somehow other things seem more important uses of your time, or something you do out of duty but often don’t seem to get much out of it. Or do you approach it as a gift from God without which you cannot grow, a constant source of guidance or comfort, an exciting part of your journey with God?
I expect many of us have felt different things about it at different parts of our life or even from week to week. But, often, if we’re honest our lack of Bible reading comes down to something akin to laziness or can’t be bothered-ness, lack of motivation, giving other things more priority in the way we organise our time, not knowing where to start or some other less than helpful excuse.
Let’s think first what significance the Bible has.
It is the Word of God, one way in which God reveals himself to the world.
It is something – and of course its form was different then – that Jesus held in high regard and often quoted from.
It is one of the three pillars of Anglicanism, along with tradition and reason.
It is a precious gift from God, a treasure-box to be opened and devoured. It has been the inspiration for countless gifts of Christian service to the world over the centuries.
It is a book people died for in their quest to make it known to ordinary people and to get it out of the hands of the authorities who used it sometimes incorrectly as a way of oppressing the people.
It is not just an ordinary book.
It can be a difficult book, but so often the best things in life are those which take effort.
No one has a good marriage without working at it, bringing up children doesn’t just happen, people who do well in their jobs put the hard graft in, and so on.
If we look at our passage from Nehemiah, I think we can glean some helpful pointers towards how we might be helped in our journey with God’s Word.
A bit of background – Jewish people have been allowed to return to their own land after the exile. They’ve been back for a while: the temple has been rebuilt, but the city walls of Jerusalem are still in ruins following its destruction in 587 BC. Nehemiah, cup-bearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes I, discovers this and begs permission to return to Jerusalem to help rebuild the walls. He’s granted permission and in spite of opposition leads the project.
He’s not the only one seeking to rebuild the Jews – Nehemiah is a lay man, but Ezra a priest, scribe and scholar is also on a mission, to call the Jews back to a faithful following of God.
In today’s passage we see the people come together to hear God’s word. I
t was a real occasion – a special platform has been built for it - and all the people gathered round to listen. This was something exciting for them and drew them in – perhaps like a pop concert today. So much so that they stand there listening for up to six hours.
This is something they are doing together – hearing and learning as a community. From the start hearing Scripture was a community activity. Ordinary people didn’t just happen to have a handy scroll of Genesis sitting around their houses which they could pick up and read at will. It was something they did when they gathered, as we do on a Sunday morning or when we come together as part of a Bible study group.
Joining with others doesn’t negate the need for our own personal quiet times with the Bible, but it is an important part of learning together.
Other people have insights that we might not have;
they spot different things in a text than we do;
they will come at things from a different angle;
and have different views about interpretation.
All of those can help us grow in our understanding of the Bible too.
Assembling together with others for Bible-reading also does other things:
It shows that we take the Bible seriously, if we are making time to gather.
It keeps us reading at times when we’re finding it hard to do alone;
it can help inspire us again – reflecting and questioning is a great way of taking something seriously.
It gives us a safe space to ask questions, to try out our ideas about interpretation, to belong to a group of people of faith all on the same journey of holiness but at different stages.
The first thing we can take from Nehemiah today is that the Bible read in community is a positive approach.
Second, the passage is adamant that not only were the passages read but that people were then helped to understand them. Verse 8 says this: “so they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Well, that’s part of the role of a sermon: to help us understand and interpret what we have read and then apply it to our own lives.
But if we are leaving all our Bible study to a ten/twelve-minute sermon, we need to think again. It’s not enough.
Nehemiah’s folk were at it for six hours! And a sermon has a number of roles, teaching and interpretation among them, but perhaps they’re not the sum total of what we do.
If we started learning French, we wouldn’t expect to understand everything after one ten-minute lesson or even after only 10 minutes a week.
Comprehension needs time to build up, and the Sunday sermon has to function in such a way that people of all levels can get something from it.
I wouldn’t, for instance, preach the same sermon to a load of academics at a Cambridge college as I would to a group of people who left school as early as they could. That’s not saying one group is better or worse than another, but that different approaches are needed for different types of people.
A Sunday congregation may well have both those types of people in it and a whole load in between. Preaching in such a way as everyone can access some-thing from one sermon is a hard task, and a reason why, though important, Sunday sermons should not be the only input we have. They by their very nature cannot be the be-all and end-all of biblical understanding and interpretation.
So, the people came together and the Scripture was not just read but also interpreted for them.
Their response may seem a little surprising – not many people I know turn to weeping when they hear Bible passages.
And yet repentance is something we are all called to do, and something the Bible can call us to. The people heard the law of Moses and wept, because they recognised how far from it they had travelled.
Nehemiah’s response, though, is “Don’t weep, rejoice” for you have understood God’s word.
It’s something to celebrate. Have a party. Make food for those who don’t have any, because strength comes from rejoicing in God.
We forget sometimes that God’s Word is good news, a gift to be celebrated.
If we think the Bible is boring, that’s what we’ll find it to be.
If we read it with the attitude that it is God’s present to us, God’s revelation of himself, then that too is what will find.
Key to all our Bible reading is the presence of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus told us would lead us into all truth.
It is the Holy Spirit that brings the words off the pages and into our hearts, that dances within us as we wrestle to understand the things of God.
Our understanding will be only partial since we are humans, and that is why the interpretation of Scripture so often becomes a battleground for Christians. What is needed is an attitude of humility rather than one of “I know I’m right about this interpretation”, and a trust that in time all will be revealed when we see God face-to-face.
If we all followed the attitude of the people in our reading today, we would discover together the inspiring nature of the word of God, the good news, which would lead us to
rejoicing when we find the understanding we take time to seek,
repenting when we realise how far we have missed the mark that God sets for us,
and learning together the joy of the Lord, which in the words of Nehemiah chapter 8 verse 10 “is our strength”.
Praise to Christ, Our Lord. Amen.