Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on January 24 2010.
Nehemiah 8:10; Luke 4:14-21
As we have mentioned before, when the people of Israel were taken into exile it was the common belief that God had stayed behind and did not accompany them into their forced life of slavery and servitude. You can imagine how this would only add to their sense of despair. They would have to endure the exile alone and in their own strength. God would not be with them to help.
At least, that’s what they thought.
Well, God wasn’t the only thing left behind when the Israelites were removed from their homes and taken to a foreign land. Their holy book, their Bible, their Torah was left there too. Perhaps there were enough of them familiar with the Torah to the point that they could recite it to the others from memory, and in that way keep their religious traditions alive. But as far as holding the scroll in their hands, seeing the words as they unfolded before their eyes… no, there was none of that.
That Book that you and I so often take for granted, what would it be like if it were taken away and we could read it and see it no more? That’s what the Israelites experienced.
But then again, what good was it to recite Torah when their God was long-distance? The Bible, of itself, has little or no use if God isn’t around to accompany it, to breathe Spirit into it, to make it a living thing and not just words printed on paper… even words that have power and meaning. So, the people of Israel, while living in Babylon, would have to do without their holy book, not to mention live without the Holy.
At least, that’s what they thought.
I’m hardly the fastest reader in the world, but if you venture into my office or visit in my home, you can’t help but see how important books are to me. As I have told you before, a mechanic has his wrenches and a surgeon his scalpel. When it comes to doing what I do, my books are my tools. It’s not unusual for me to have several books going at once. But even when it comes to reading just for the pure enjoyment of it, I don’t mind devoting the hours to it. A really good book, not to mention its author, becomes your friend. I can’t imagine what life would be like without my books.
Well, maybe I can.
If I may be a bit personal… This is one of the things that makes my nursing home visits with my mother such a sad experience. She now has a fairly high level of dementia, as many of you know, precipitated by a stroke a few years back. It affected the lower left temporal lobe of her brain. That’s the area of the brain that allows for memory. Now, when I visit, though there is recognition on her part and she knows I am someone significant to her, I have to explain who I am and how we’re related. Each visit is yet another exercise in telling her about her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who they are and where they live. That part I don’t mind so much because, even though I see the confusion in her face and know that when I visit her the next time I’ll have to explain these things all over again, it seems to bring a small measure of happiness to her.
One of the saddest things is that her dementia has rendered her unable to read. It’s not that she can’t see the words, it’s that damage from the stroke won’t allow her to focus and understand. Somewhere between her eyes and her brain everything just kind of shuts down.
When we used to visit with my folks in the home where I grew up, and that they had together for more than fifty years, we would sit around and do crossword puzzles together or share the newspaper. Books were often gifts we would give my parents at Christmas or for birthdays, and they would do the same for us. I can’t imagine how it has affected my mom now, not being able to do a puzzle or to read, not being able to understand what she sees, to interpret images and symbols… which, of course, are what words and letters really are.
There is a sense in which the people of Israel, now returned from the Babylonian exile, have spiritual dementia. If they once knew of God and God’s law, they have forgotten. Or at least, much has been lost over the years. Now back home, though they are obviously happy to be there, there is a strangeness about it, an unfamiliarity. Many of them had grown up in Babylon, and while it hardly gave them an affection for this foreign land, it still was what they knew, where their familiarity lay. They had a lot of learning to do in order to re-condition themselves to living in their own land.
Many never knew Torah unless there was someone of an older generation to tell them. They were starved for a word from God, and because of his love for his people and his devotion to God, Nehemiah was just the man to give them – to reintroduce to them – God’s holy word.
But Nehemiah was more of a construction engineer than a priest, so he turned to Ezra for leadership. Nehemiah knew that rebuilding the city was one thing; rebuilding the people, making their spirit strong, empowering them through their deeply-rooted faith, was the most important thing. Nehemiah wanted to give his people hope, so he instructed Ezra to give back to his people their book of faith.
All the people gathered together in the city square before the Water Gate, we are told. All the people, each and every one. In those days, when people met for an important occasion, it was the custom to count heads… which, of course, means they had to have some Baptist blood in them! But they usually only counted the men. And when, years later, the temple was built, they constructed a main area for the men and a separate, lesser area for the women.
But not here, not on this day. When it came to the public reading and hearing of the law, “both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” were in attendance. From early morning to midday “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” Not only that, the people stood the entire time.
In January 1986 I not only attended the worship of the MoscowBaptistChurch in Russia’s capital city, I had the privilege of assisting in communion. There is a framed picture in my office that shows me drinking from the common cup. In fact, I was the very last person in the place to do so. Three thousand people were there that day for the two-hour service, and they stood shoulder-to-shoulder the entire time.
Why? I’ll tell you why. When you hunger enough to hear a word from God, when you thirst for the good news found in that book we do indeed so often take for granted, when life has no meaning beyond the truths that are found in that book, you’ll stand, you’ll listen, you’ll hear as long as it takes… and God will somehow give you the strength to do it.
That is why the people of Jerusalem, just home from exile in Babylon, stood from early morning to midday to hear the reading of God’s word. The law was life to them, and now nothing and no one will ever take it away. On that day food and water meant nothing to them for their hunger and thirst was not for physical sustenance. It was for a word from God, and that word came from their holy book.
I referred earlier to my mom’s situation. Despite the sadness of it, there have been some humorous moments. Actually, finding an occasional moment of humor helps keep her and all of us going. I accept such moments as a small grace-gift from God.
Back in the early 90’s Mom was telling us a story from her childhood, so I encouraged her to write down her memoirs, telling her that her recollections would be valuable to her family in the years to come. What I didn’t know is that she actually did it!
A little over three years ago, after we brought Mom and Dad to live in Little Rock, my brother Hugh and I went back to Paragould to begin the difficult and emotional task of cleaning out their house that now felt so empty and abandoned without their presence. It was then we found her handwritten stories tucked away in the bottom drawer of her desk. Hugh took them back home to Houston, transcribed them, had them bound, and has given copies to a number of family members. It has become, to us, a valued treasure.
One day I was visiting with Mom and decided to read to her from her memoirs. After awhile she looked at me kind of funny and said, “You know, the very same thing happened to me!”
Why do you think the people of Jerusalem wept when they heard God’s word being read to them? One reason is obvious. This was a very emotional moment. For years and years they have been deprived of hearing Torah, and now that it is being read to them they cannot withhold the inner urgings that are now flooding into their hearts.
But I think there may be something else to this as well. They hear their own stories within the stories of scripture. There is a familiarity about them because this is their spiritual heritage, recorded within the pages of the book that has become so holy to them. The instruction found within the Bible encourages them to righteous living. The God who is the author of these words has come and reclaimed them, has redeemed them, and as the people hear God speaking to them through the written word they say to themselves, “You know, the very same thing happened to me!”
You see, that book is just that… a book… until you begin finding yourself within its pages. And I daresay that if you spend enough time with it, you will indeed find yourself there. In fact, if you read it with a prayer on your lips and an expectation in your heart you will find that you are not really reading the Bible, the Bible is reading you, as if it knows what you were doing and thinking just moments ago.
And it will keep the fragments of your life together and help you to create a patchwork of faith and hope that will hold you in good stead when the difficult moments come. Fred Craddock puts it this way: “The Bible was not written by some relaxed person, all lathered up with sunscreen under an umbrella by the beach drinking lemonade. The Bible was written by people who had to put life together with short pieces of string.”1
You’ve no doubt heard people make a lot of claims for the Bible that the Bible does not make for itself. I can’t help but think it is because they believe that life is governed by rules. And frankly, it’s quite easy to make a case for that. All you have to do is look in the Book of Leviticus. You want rules. It has rules out the wazoo.
But then there came a Man who put God’s word in perspective for us because, as John in his gospel puts it so poetically and eloquently, he was The Word. Jesus had rules, to be sure. Look at the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, he took the rules of his day and made them even tougher. For example, the law had rules for marriage and for divorce. Instead, Jesus responded with matters of the heart. It is what comes from inside us, he said, that is so telling about who and what we are, not that which goes into us. The Bible has a way of probing us with its x-ray vision to the point that we are laid bare before its presence.
It’s a rather scary thought, isn’t it? Yes it is, until you realize that whatever the Bible takes from us it gives back many times more, especially when you interpret it in the spirit of Jesus.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a nursing home experience. Every month she would go and serve communion to some of the residents who, as she puts it, “spend their days strapped in wheelchairs against the walls of the television room.” There would be ten or fifteen of them in the sun room in a semicircle around a small table. She says it was one of the hardest things she did because, frankly, she doubted “the power of the sacrament to break through their fog.”
It was late on a Monday afternoon. One of the volunteers warned her that everyone’s medication was wearing off, a mixed blessing. While they were more awake than usual, they were also more vocal. One woman sang, “Row, row, row your boat” while bouncing against her restraints. Finally Barbara clapped her hands to try and get their attention, and then she asked, “What shall I read from the Bible this afternoon? What part would you like to hear?”
One old woman’s broken voice came through the noise and confusion. “Tell us a resurrection story,” she said. Her words settled over the room, Barbara says, and “the movers and shakers held still for a moment and the sleepers opened their eyes.”
“Yes,” someone else said, and then someone else. “Tell us a resurrection story.”
Barbara says, “The Bible tells us the stories we need and want to hear – stories to help us live, stories to help us die, and stories to help us believe we shall live again. Listening to them, we are called into relationship with the One who tells them to us. Believing them, we are changed.”2
It is not the book that changes us but the God who lives and breathes and has being within our hearts. But it is that book that opens us up to such a redeeming God. So the more time we spend with it, the more time we spend with the Holy… and that’s a good thing, right?
Lord, open to us the words of this book that is so holy to us, that we might the presence of the Holy within our hearts. In Jesus’ name we ask it, Amen.