(Originally preached on 1/24/2016, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany)
When the seventh month came and the people of Israel were settled in their towns, all the people gathered together in the area in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Instruction scroll from Moses, according to which the Lord had instructed Israel.
2 So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Instruction before the assembly. This assembly was made up of both men and women and anyone who could understand what they heard.3 Facing the area in front of the Water Gate, he read it aloud, from early morning until the middle of the day. He read it in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand, and everyone listened attentively to the Instruction scroll.
4 Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that had been made for this purpose. And standing beside him were Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right-hand side; while Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam stood on his left-hand side.
5 Standing above all of the people, Ezra the scribe opened the scroll in the sight of all of the people. And as he opened it, all of the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places. 8 They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction.
10 “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:1-10, CEB)
If you remember, last week there was a question I asked a lot. Does anyone remember what it was? What next? Right? Our Centennial Celebration was two weeks ago. We’ve celebrated 100 years of ministry in this building, and that’s amazing. But now we’re past this great milestone. So now what? What next? What does God have for Alger First UMC to do next? What would God have us do next, as a church body? I said it last week and I’ll say it again this week, I cannot be the only one asking those questions. We all must be asking those questions if we want to move forward from this moment and lean into the future God has for us.
Now, as I was asking God those questions this week, I realized that the answers to those questions might be right in front of me. [I held up my Bible] This is the greatest book of answers we have. If you have a question about God’s will [from the Christian perspective], where else would you start besides the Bible?
Now, that’s fine to say, but let’s be honest. This is a BIG book, parts of it are thousands and thousands of years old, it took thousands of years for it to come together in the order we have it now, and it was written for cultures vastly different from our own. It’s fine to say that we can find the answer to our “what next?” question in this book, but it’s not that easy, at least I don’t think so. This is a difficult book.
Have any of you felt like that about reading your Bibles? Maybe you’ve thought that it’s a difficult book, it’s hard to understand, it’s boring, why are the names so long? Who are all of these people and where are all of these places? If it’s so old, why does it still matter today?Maybe you’ve thought that this is an intimidating book-and it is. Maybe you’re thinking “where do I start? Once, I tried starting in Genesis and reading through it, but I got held up in Leviticus and just gave up and skipped to the Gospels. I like those, but what about the rest of this?”
Maybe you’ve thought that this is an intimidating book-and it is. Maybe you’re thinking “where do I start? Once, I tried starting in Genesis and reading through it, but I got held up in Leviticus and just gave up and skipped to the Gospels. I like those, Jesus is in those, but what about the rest of this?”
Now, all of those questions and frustrations are totally valid, but this is still a vastly important book. It’s the biggest source of our knowledge about our Christian identity, it’s the closest to a primary source we can get. Any questions about who Jesus is, who God is, who we are, and who the church is and should be must all start with this book.
However, so many of us only crack this book open on Sunday morning just to hear what their pastor has to say about it. Then it goes back on the shelf.
I want all of us to be asking the question “What does God have for us to do next? What is God’s future for Alger First UMC?” And not just ask the question, but search for the answer. Where do you begin your search? In the Bible. Now I realize you might be reluctant to begin there because of all the reasons I just laid out. Can’t we just come to church and hear what our pastor has to say about the Bible?
I think our passage from Nehemiah can tell us something about this.
The passage from Nehemiah I read for you a few minutes ago is connected to the passage I read for you last week. Let me lay out some of the background and context for you.
This passage talks about what happened to the ancient Jewish people after the Babylonian exile. I talked about that last week, but let me review it real quick: The Jewish people had not been living as God’s people for a while, so Yahweh, God, allowed the nation of Babylon to conquer them. Babylon absolutely destroyed the Jewish temple and all of the city of Jerusalem, and they took around 10,000 Jews back to Babylon with them in captivity. This was the exile.
Now after several decades, Cyrus, who was the king of Persia, took over Babylon and all of its conquered territory. He allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, around 70 years after Babylon had taken them away.
So now, the people have begun the rebuilding process, but they’ve lost their memories of the kind of people God called them to be. So this guy named Ezra, a priest, comes back and he sees that the people have rebuilt the temple, but they don’t know their own story. They don’t know who they are. They don’t know what God would have them do. They don’t even know who their God is, really. They’re lost. They’re confused. They’re frustrated.
And that brings us to the passage I read for you. Ezra sees that something needs to be done, so he gathers all of the people together-women, children, men, everyone. And he gathers them together to read the Torah, the record of their relationship with God. He gathers together all of these people who have forgotten their faith and forgotten their God, and he reads for them whatever version of the Torah, the Jewish Holy Book, they had back then. He would have read the great stories of the past, read about the fathers and mothers of the faith and of the nation, the people’s captivity in Egypt and then their escape, led by Moses across the Reed Sea, their settling in the Promised Land, the land God gave them, on which they were standing at that moment. Stories, prophecies, psalms, songs, legal traditions.
Now that last one, legal traditions, sounds incredibly boring. But it wouldn’t have been like one of us picking up the U.S. Constitution and reading it top to bottom. This would have been all of the Instructions that came directly from God that told the people how to be God’s people, and what that relationship would look like. The people had lost this, and they were finding it again, so it was so important to read it all the way through.
So Ezra read this from morning to noon, around 4 hours. That’s a lot of stuff. To make our service today more historically accurate, I thought about trying to preach for 4 hours, because believe me, I could, but I decided against it. You’re welcome.So Israel had gotten to this huge milestone-they’ve finally returned to the Promised Land-but they can’t move beyond this without God’s help. Here, we see them starting in the right place. They’re offering themselves in humility and reverence to God. They’re engaging in passionate worship. They’re offering their whole selves up to the God who redeems and transforms and calls forward into new life and new ministry. And the center of all of this: the reading of the Torah, God’s Word, from morning to noon.
So Israel had gotten to this huge milestone-they’ve finally returned to the Promised Land-but they can’t move beyond this without God’s help. Here, we see them starting in the right place. They’re offering themselves in humility and reverence to God. They’re engaging in passionate worship. They’re offering their whole selves up to the God who redeems and transforms and calls forward into new life and new ministry. And at the center of all of this is the reading of the Torah, God’s Word, from morning to noon.
Ezra knew that if a group of people were going to try to figure out where God would have them go next and what God would have them do next, they needed to start with hearing, reading, and understanding the Word of God.
Now here’s why I think all of this is important to us here today in Alger First UMC. Like ancient Israel in this story, we’ve come to a huge milestone in our history. 100 years of ministry in this building-that’s amazing! We have such a great legacy and witness in this village. And we’ve started to move into our future after this milestone in some of the right ways.
If you remember, the week before the Centennial Celebration, we renewed our covenant to God and offered ourselves in humility and reverence to God. If you weren’t here that week, there should be a copy of a prayer that sums up what we did that day in your bulletins-the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer.
We also had a passionate worship service to celebrate the last 100 years, and the celebration was really great, I had a great time. But now, we are called to continue to offer our whole selves up to the God who redeems us and transforms us and calls us forward into new life and new ministry.
When the ancient Jewish people did this work, what was central to their work? Reading and understanding God’s Word. The same thing should be central to us: reading and understanding God’s Word to us.
Remember the question I’ve been asking? What would God have Alger First UMC do next? I want us all to be asking questions like that about this church. And I want to help us continue to start in the right place.
Like I said in the beginning, we cannot only ask the question: we have to search for the answer, and each of us must begin each of our searches in our Bibles. So that’s the challenge I’m putting before you this week. Read your Bible.
Now I’m not just going to say that and leave you with no direction. Could you all get out the insert in your bulletin that says “Daily Bible Reading Plan?” [For those of you reading this blog, we had an insert in our bulletin with the daily lectionary for the week laid out on it. If you want a copy, contact me or simply go here, to the Revised Common Lectionary website, hosted by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, which is where I got the daily lectionary readings] This is a suggested reading plan to help you start or continue regularly reading your Bibles. I’ve talked about the lectionary before, and how it’s the calendar of assigned Scripture readings for every Sunday of the year, and how that’s what I follow for my preaching. This is a daily lectionary, put together by the same people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary [the Consultation on Common Texts] that I’ve talked about. And it works like this. The scripture passages for Monday-Wednesday look back on what was said and read today. The Scripture passages for Thursday-Saturday look forward to what will be said and read next Sunday. So everything works together. And we’re going to have this as a bulletin insert with a new plan every week. Make sense?
You see, I want us as a church to be a people of the Book, and I want each of us to take responsibility for reading the Bible on our own. And not just reading what other people have to say about the Bible. I want each of us to be reading it for ourselves and trying to understand it ourselves. We’re smart people, we can figure it out. Sunday morning cannot be the only time you read the Bible or hear anything about the Bible. I cannot be the only voice telling you about what’s in here. As believers in Christ, we are all called to read this book for ourselves so that we as a community, as one body, can know what God has for us to do.
What does God have for Alger First UMC to do next? The answer might be in your Bibles. In fact, it probably is. And I cannot be the only one searching for the answer to that question. Because I am one flawed human being. I do not see everything. I do not come close to understanding everything in here. Each of you have important insights to bring that I am not able to see on my own, and that other people here won’t see. We as a church need each of us to be reading the Bible and figuring out what God has to say to Alger First UMC in its pages.
There’s a pastor, Rev. David Jones, who was concerned about his congregation’s unwillingness to read the Bible on their own, and preached about it from this text from Nehemiah. He said that his church had the practice of giving a Bible to kids moving from the second to the third grade. Before the service when they would hand out those Bibles, Rev. Jones would normally go to the sanctuary early and look through all the Bibles, make sure all the kids’ names were on them, make sure he knew how to pronounce their names. This year, he said he was going to do something different about it. He was going to put a sticker on them that said “This is a Bible. A Bible is a book filled with stories of people who have met God. Those people are our people. Their stories are our stories. We read their stories because we want to remember who God is, who we are, and what we believe, so that we will know how to live.” [quote from the original sermon here]
That’s why this is so important. If each of us are not reading this book, how are we supposed to know who God is, who we are, what we believe, and how to live? This is your challenge this week. Follow the reading plan this week. Immerse yourself in the Word of God by opening the pages of your Bible and reading it for yourself. See what God tells you.