Sermon for Bible Sunday
By Revd George Mwaura
Nehemiah 8: 1–12; Matthew 24: 30–35
Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all your children gathered here this morning be acceptable in thy sight, in Jesus’ name.
Recently, our world has been so severely disrupted that it has left many of us confused and dislocated. At times, it feels like one has walked right into one of Stephen Spielberg’s apocalyptic movies. The pandemic has reminded us of how fragile we as creatures are. We are not in control of the universe as much as we thought we were and we desperately need one another if we are to survive. As we seek to re-build following a period of major disruption and with so many insecurities still ahead, the question is: how can God’s people experience spiritual renewal together? And where can we find the resources we need to face a brave new world?
Today is Bible Sunday, and it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on these questions by gathering around the Bible. I want to focus on a particular story, captured in the book of Nehemiah, because it feels appropriate and speaks to our context. Essentially, this story is about Israel recovering from a time of major disruption and experiencing spiritual renewal through God’s word found in the Bible.
But first, let us put this story in its original context. It’s the fifth century bc and the Israelites have recently been through the traumatic experience of exile. A century or so before, the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its inhabitants out of their homeland. By the rivers of Babylon, there they sat down and wept in a foreign land. They could not even string a tune for the Lord! Exile in Babylon proved to be an incredibly testing and painful time. Now, fast forward this narrative seventy years later and the Persians are the new kids on the block. They kicked the Babylonians out and allowed the exiles to return home.
So, in several waves, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild their old lives. But if exile was tough, trying to get back to a new normal in the middle of so much chaos and insecurities was even harder. Is that familiar? Lockdown has been terrible but rebuilding the future seems and feels even more challenging.
However, when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he managed to mobilise the inhabitants into action. The walls of the city were rebuilt and the people began to feel secure again. And we too should take heart. With God on our side, we can rise from the desolation and ashes of Covid-19 and experience the security of the old life in our new normal once again.
Once the physical wall and temple were rebuilt, the protagonist of our passage takes centre stage. Enter Ezra. Ezra had also returned to Jerusalem and worked with Nehemiah, but he had a different skill set. While Nehemiah was a visionary leader, Ezra was a Bible teacher. In chapter 8, it is Ezra who takes the lead as God’s people re-gather around God’s word.
This passage is wonderful, and it teaches us three ways that the Bible can facilitate spiritual renewal:
1 The Bible is a divine watering hole
The Bible is for all God’s people. After the trauma of exile and the exhaustion of rebuilding Jerusalem, the people of Israel were thirsty. They needed to drink again from the truth of God’s word. So they asked Ezra to bring out the Book of Moses and to read it to them. I am not sure which sections of the Torah Ezra read. Perhaps from Genesis through Exodus to Deuteronomy. It’s not the point. The point is Ezra read from Israel’s sacred Scriptures and they hungrily quenched their spiritual thirst. I wonder, did you notice who and where they were at as they listened? Instead of meeting in the rebuilt Temple, where only Jewish men could enter, they assembled in a public square so that everyone could come and listen: men, women, young, old, schooled and unschooled. Rarely in the scriptures is there a display of such diversity and it’s the Bible that provided the gathering point.
2 The Bible is a larger story that gives us hope
As the Israelites listened to Ezra reading the Torah, it was clear how this was affecting them. Nehemiah tells us that Ezra stood on a large platform built especially for the occasion. Thousands gathered round as he read from the Book of Moses. It was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop, as the young and old soaked in the word. What was it that was so captivating? After all, for us in the 21st century there are always more interesting things to watch on Sky, Netflix or Amazon. Why bother with the Bible?
Perhaps the key for Israel, and for us too, is that the Bible helps us feel part of a larger story that makes sense of our experiences. As Ezra read Israel’s history, including God rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt, making a covenant with them on Mount Sinai and taking care of them in the wilderness when they were exposed, it became clear to them that this wasn’t just another dusty old story. Oh no: this was their story. As Ezra read extracts of the Bible, the Israelites felt part of something solid and certain. It gave them confidence to face their challenges knowing that God would be faithful through it all.
This, too, is why we need the Bible. The Bible is our story too. As the coronavirus exposes our fragilities, the Bible reminds us that we are part of a larger story going back all the way from Genesis to Revelation and beyond. We may and will experience some chaos in the middle, but God has a plan for us, as Jeremiah tells us: a plan to prosper us and not to harm us. He will not fail us and he promises to take care of his people. Trust me, you won’t find that kind of promise on social media, Netflix or Amazon Prime!
3 Finally, the Bible helps us to cultivate a true community
After Ezra had finished reading, he suddenly realised that the people had started crying. They got so emotional that Nehemiah stepped in to try and comfort them: ‘Awwww; do not mourn or weep,’ Nehemiah said. ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet wine.’
That’s an unusual request for a leader to make, isn’t it! Usually I tell you to keep sober and avoid sugar! What’s going on here? Where did all their emotion come from? Remember, the Israelites faced major loss, disruption and insecurity, but had to keep going through it all. As the Bible was read it was like the lid was lifted. They encountered words of comfort and hope. They may also have felt a sense of conviction and remorse. Either way, Scripture created a safe space that allowed emotions to surface and deeper issues to be discussed.
As a society we’ve been through a horrid time recently. We’ve experienced and continue to experience loss and high levels of insecurities. We probably don’t realise how much we’ve bottled the stress in and the toll it’s taken of us. In the context of community, the Bible can help us express our emotions as part of a process of healing and renewal. Chapter 8 finishes with a scene of celebration, as tears of sorrow turn to feasting and rejoicing.
As Nehemiah famously put it, ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’ The Israelites responded by putting the Scriptures into practice, and shared what they had with the poor and those in need.
One thing the pandemic has taught us is to be aware of our neighbours’ pain and to show kindness, support and concern for those on the margins. After all, we are Christ’s eyes, ears, hands and mouth. After a period of disruption, God’s people experienced a new depth of community as they gathered around God’s word.
Over the next few months, no doubt we too will have reason to cry together, celebrate together, lament and laugh together. As we do so, we will discover that vulnerability and generosity are the keys to authentic community, whether here in the church, at home or on Zoom. Healing and renewal come when we gather around God’s word together. Friends, have a meditative Bible Sunday.
Amen[I acknowledge Dr Andrew Ollerton of the Bible Society for his notes on this topic which I used to create the sermon.]