January 24th, 2016
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
That’s why the people were gathered together—to hear the Scriptures, to come to God again. It may have been the first ever revival meeting. Ezra and his assistants moved throughout the crowd, reading to them from Scripture, and interpreting it to them. “They gave the sense, so the people understood the reading,” the Bible says. The Scripture, the book, the law of God—Ezra and his assistants gave the sense of it to the people, so they could understand, and then the people wept. And here, curiously, the Bible does not say why the people wept—perhaps it was because they found the law too difficult, and were sad that they had to change their lives. Or perhaps it was out of joy, that they heard Scripture and could receive it and study it, that they were at home, both in the land and in their hearts. But then Nehemiah or Ezra say, “Do not weep; but rejoice, and send food and drink to those for whom nothing has been prepared, for this day is holy to the LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
This is a story about Scripture, but it is also a story about what lies behind Scripture, about the point of Scripture and what Scripture does to us. So is the story from Luke—Jesus comes to a synagogue, having taught throughout the region of Galilee, and then takes the scroll in his home synagogue, and preaches from Scripture. Not from the law, this time, but from the prophets. But in both stories something lies behind the Scripture that the Scripture discloses. Nehemiah tells a story of rebuilding, of reformation, of saying yes to being God’s people, and saying yes to Scripture and to the God of Scripture. Luke’s story is about receiving the fulfillment of God, in time and in a certain place. Neither seeks to validate Scripture itself, but rather the God that Scripture discloses. And the holiness of Scripture comes from God’s own presence in it and through it, that God speaks through it.
And notice that both stories build on what has come before, what has been written before. Neither the book Nehemiah nor the book of Luke were written self-consciously as scripture—both Luke and Nehemiah point to older scripture, at least by their own reckoning. Nehemiah points to the Law, and Jesus to the prophets. And yet, when we heard them read today, we hear these passages also as Scripture, as the Word of the Lord, and to them we replied, “Thanks be to God.” We thanked God for having heard this word, even if we didn’t weep as they did at the homecoming in Jerusalem. We will sometimes say, Holy Wisdom, Holy Word, because that’s what we believe the Scriptures are—God’s Word for us, today.
Today we heard the Bible in translation, from the New Revised Standard Version, which is a translation made from the best Hebrew and Greek texts available. The first English Bible, by John Wycliffe, was done in the 1300s, and it was illegal to make it and share it, as Wycliffe and his followers did. The translation we read from today, however, owes a lot to William Tyndale, an English Lutheran, who left England to study Hebrew in Germany so he could translate the Bible into English for his people. For his work, he was strangled and then burned. His last words were to God, pleading, “May you open the King of England’s eyes.” And just a few years later, God answered that prayer. The king commissioned an English Translation that relied heavily on Tyndale’s work, a translation that we call the King James Bible, a translation that is still the standard that measures our language and the translations of Scripture today. The Hebrew bible itself was kept alive at great cost of lives—especially when after Jesus’ time, the Jews once again found themselves in exile, and persecuted and marginalized everywhere they went. All of this is to say that the words of Scripture are sacred, and over time, people have been willing to die to bring them to people, so that they can encounter God. And beyond this, the relationship people make with the God of Scripture, well, people have been willing to die for this, too.
And Christ himself has something to say about Scripture—in his home synagogue, in the middle of his friends and family, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah, “and speaks, and says, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And he that’s the end of the sermon. But he says this because he himself is the fulfillment of scripture. He himself is the fulfillment of the promises. The words of Scripture point to him—and he claims the promises for himself, to fulfill them for us. The God beyond Scripture comes to meet us in person, in Jesus. But this doesn’t mean that the importance of Scripture is any less—rather it is all the more important, because we know that what Scripture promises is true. The Word of God is real. And we receive it like water in a thirsty land.
Indeed, we call Jesus Christ the Word of God. We trust that he speaks to us through the Scriptures. We trust that when we hear the Scriptures read, when read them on our own, when we study them, he will speak to us through Scripture. That is why we treasure them and hold them holy, and that is why our forebears have given up their lives so that we can read them in our own language. It is worth it to give this gift of trust, to hear that God is doing great things among us, saving us, rescuing us, speaking to us. I am excited for our parish, because with Wayfarers, our catechumenate, we will be placing our bets on Scripture, on the idea that God will meet the seekers and searchers and those that wish to join our congregation in the old words, the translated text, the Word of God. Every Sunday night during Lent we will meet around the Word of God, and we are betting that God will meet us. When we read scripture with the eyes of the heart, we are reading with a risk, the risk that God is real.
I have been trained in all the modern methods of Bible study. I know the difference between the historical-critical method and the hermeneutic of suspicion. I know about redaction criticism and form criticism. I know much less than a Ph. D. in Bible, but I know something else: the Bible still speaks. Jesus speaks to us through Scripture, and Scripture still calls to those that read it. And it points to Christ, who fulfills its promises. Amen.
The Rev. John Flack