Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

. . . which just happens to be my first sermon as an Anglican.  When the Rector is away . . .

The sermon was part of Morning Prayer in which the Lessons were Nehemiah 8: 1-12 and Luke 11:37-end.  The Psalm was 119:41-72.

Hearing and Responding to the Word of God

The walls of Jerusalem have just been rebuilt.  And now it is the Feast of Trumpets, what we call today Rosh Hashanah.  And on this high occasion, the scrolls of the Torah, the Law of Moses, are brought out to be read by Ezra to the great assembly.
We read of this occasion in the first lesson this morning, in Nehemiah, chapter 8.  The Book of Nehemiah is somewhat neglected, but it should not be so.  It deals chiefly with Nehemiah’s successful campaign to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem after the Exile.  And this book has a lot to teach us about how to perform important works for God in the face of opposition.  But time does not permit us to examine that subject this morning.

What I do want us to examine was how the Word of God was taught and received on that special Feast of Trumpets of 444 B. C. just after the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

In 8:3, this passage tells us that Ezra read to the people from the Law, which is the first five books of our Bible, “from early morning until midday.”

Now, on a normal day, that is not a practical schedule for most of us.  But there is a lot to be said for setting aside a day or a half-day from time to time for Bible reading, reflection, and prayer.  Among the benefits are that setting aside such extended times allows time for the Word to sink in.  And it allows time to reflect on what our response to the Word should be. 

On this occasion, the nation of Israel used their liturgical calendar to do that.  And our church year provides opportunities for that as well.  Vacation time also provides opportunities as I was recently blessed to experience in New Mexico.  Even sick time can provide an opportunity for extended time in the Word.  Better to read the Bible and reflect on it in bed than just lay there and reflect on being sick.

So Ezra read for half a day.  Now note how the people listened: “The ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”  And that is saying something.  Because let’s be honest.  Better yet, I’ll be honest.  There are times when my attention strays when the Bible is read or taught.  I know that’s shocking, but it’s true.

You know, kids are the ones who are supposed to have short attention spans.  But my attention span keeps getting shorter as I get older!

There is something strange about human nature -- we are so easily distracted from what is vital by what is trivial.  We need to fight that tendency with God’s help and pay close attention to His word.

Note now what accompanied the reading of the Word.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.  And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

This was a special occasion, but the reading of God’s word should always be accompanied by worship and prayer.  That’s one reason our services of Morning and Evening Prayer, and of the Holy Communion as well, are structured as they are, with both the reading of scripture and prayer.

Our hearts and minds can be really slow to understand the things of God, and we need his help to do so.  Also, we should always be thankful that God has spoken to us and given us His Holy Word.  So prayer very much goes with the reading of scripture.

And when our heavenly Father speaks to us we should respond.  One of my favorite prayer book prayers of response, and a prayer for response, to his word is:
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words which we have heard this day with our outward ears may, through thy grace, be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living; to the honour and praise of thy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And that is an appropriate prayer indeed.

Then the passage from Nehemiah 8 lets us know of very practical assistance given to the people so that they could understand the reading of scripture.
In verse 7, a number of men with interesting names “helped the people to understand the Law. . . . They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

Commentators differ as to exactly what was happening here.  Some think that the men were translating the Law.  For many, perhaps most of the people, that returned from the 70 year exile in Babylon, Hebrew was no longer their first language as in previous generations, but Chaldee instead.  Many needed some translation.

Others think that the men were interpreting the Law in plain everyday language to make it easier for the people to understand.  And it is certainly possible that the men did both.

We would be wise to avail ourselves of learned interpreters and commenters on the Word.  We are certainly blessed to have one as our Rector.  And, by the way, one important reason for regular church attendance is to hear the Word taught.
Beyond these walls, learned interpreters, such as the church fathers, are available to us as never before.  For example, you may have seen a 38 volume set of the Church Fathers.  I was fortunate to get to buy Fr. John’s set, and it is in my library.  But now you don’t have to spend the money and find the space for it.  It’s all available online.

And I think it a good thing to read the church fathers and the reformers as time permits, and not only modern books.  C. S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled “On the Reading of Old Books,” and in it he said, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” And he puts forth his reasons for that, one of which is that each age has its characteristic errors, including our own.  “We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.”

Allow me to add that, given many of the new books one finds even in Christian bookstores, C. S. Lewis’ advice surely goes double today!

Now, of course, we must remember that neither the Church Fathers nor the Reformers were infallible.  But we are not infallible either and can easily fall into errant private interpretation if we read the Bible without learned and godly guidance.  So it is indeed wise to allow ourselves the assistance of good interpreters.

At the same time, the best interpreter of scripture is scripture, as Fr. Ben often reminds us.  So the more we read the Bible, the more we equip ourselves to understand it.

But as we read the Bible and listen to interpreters of the Word, let us beware of two pitfalls of which we are warned by Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in our 2nd Lesson.
First, not all interpreters are trustworthy, even if they might be happen to be highly respected.   Who were the most highly respected Bible teachers of Jesus’ day?  The Pharisees!  It is easy to forget that since they have such a bad name today, but they were.  Yet they led people astray.  Today also there are false teachers who are fawned over and respected – Brian MacLaren comes to mind – but they are false teachers nonetheless.

The second pitfall is to allow increasing Bible knowledge to increase our pride.  I’ve witnessed a mentality in some Christian circles that Bible knowledge = righteousness.  But the Pharisees were very knowledgeable about the Law and thought themselves righteous.  And we see what the Lord thought of their supposed righteousness.

Really, increased Bible knowledge should lead to increased humility and repentance as we find out more and more about God’s standards – and more and more about how we fall short of His standards.  In fact, in Nehemiah 8, that is exactly how the people responded to the reading of the Word.

And now let us do note the response of those people to God’s word.

For many, perhaps most, of the people, this was the first time they had heard so much of the Word of God systematically read to them.  And when they heard parts of the Word that they saw they had not been living out as they should, they wept.  Now part of that may have been the emotion of the occasion.  But for the most part, it was heartfelt repentance.  When they heard parts of God’s Law that they saw they were not doing, they grieved.  So much so that the leaders made a point to calm the people down and to remind them that it was a happy occasion.

And that leads to another way in which they responded to God’s word.  Verse 12 says they made “great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

What a good example these people are to us, in how they responded to the Word with both repentance and rejoicing! 

But let’s be honest, we often fall short of that good example because we take God’s word for granted.  We Americans have the Bible so available to us in different translations and formats.  There are even any number of Bibles packaged for different demographic groups.  There’s Men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, Youth Bibles.  There’s an American Patriot’s Bible.  Yes, there is.  And I could get a good rant on about some of these.  But I’ll confine myself to saying that we Americans are downright spoiled by the availability of God’s word.

Don’t get me wrong.  The availability of God’s word is a great blessing.  But sometimes we let blessing spoil us, especially when that blessing continues for years and decades.  It is so easy for us to take the Bible for granted.  If we catch ourselves doing so, and I know I have, let us then repent of that.

For we need to read God’s word not just with our eyes.  We need to hear God’s word not just with our ears.  We need to read and hear God’s word with more than just our minds even -- although certainly we should let the word engage and shape our minds.

We need to receive God’s word with our hearts, just like those people in Nehemiah 8 did.  We need to respond to the Word with what Cramner might call a hearty response – with heartfelt repentance when we see we fall short of God’s ways, and with rejoicing that our loving God is not silent, but has given us his precious word, and that we get to hear it.  What a privilege it is to hear and to respond to the very word of God!

So let us shake off all spiritual lethargy and cease taking God’s word for granted.  And let us read and hear the Word with both our hearts and minds – and respond with both repentance and joy.  Amen.

Let us pray.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words which we have heard this day with our outward ears may, through thy grace, be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living; to the honour and praise of thy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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