Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2013, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Sermon Theme: “Nothing Less than a National Bible Reading”
(Sources: Emphasis online Commentary; Emphasis online Illustrations; original ideas; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 23, Part 1, Series C)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up in the Lutheran Church in the 1940’s, the worship service was held in German. It’s pretty obvious why we didn’t have many non-German visitors in those days. You’re a visitor, and the pastor says, “Sitzen,” and you don’t know it means “to sit,” so you keep standing. The pastor reads from the Bible, and you don’t recognize a word of it, because it’s a German Bible.
One of our missionaries told a story some years ago about being sent to a South American country where only Spanish was spoken and he didn’t know a word of that language. His in-service training was to attend worship services conducted in Spanish.
At the first service, he sat by a man who obviously knew Spanish, so when the man stood up, he stood up, when the man sat down, he sat down, and when the man kneeled, he knelt.
After the Benediction, the pastor made announcements, and after the last announcement the man sitting next to the missionary/visitor stood up, so the missionary stood up, and the entire congregation let out a gasp. The pastor had asked who was the father of the new baby whose birth was just announced.
Can you imagine standing all day while someone read the Bible to you? Well that’s what happened in our sermon text from Nehemiah for today. Well, not all 66 Books of both Testaments, not even the 39 books of the Old Testament, but, as our text says, the Book of the Law of Moses, which would have been Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. That was still a long time to stand.
We have a remnant of that tradition of standing for the reading of the Word of God when we stand for the reading of the Gospel. The Jews stood for the reading of all Holy Scriptures, to show respect and reverence for the Word. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
In the Roman Catholic Church, the altar was built higher than the pulpit. After the Reformation, Luther had the pulpit raised up higher than the altar in all Lutheran churches, as a sign that the Word was the most important aspect of worship. “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
When the Word is read, no one talks, laughs, whispers, sits, or leaves the room. All Jewish men were taught Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, so the Book of Moses was read in Hebrew, all males understanding that language with the expectation they would explain it to their wives.
As in Nehemiah’s day, our culture is confused, — no, worse than confused. It is simply “in the dark” about the most central matters that a human being should know.
Perhaps, like me, you have had the opportunity to descend into a cave in one of our national parks and listen to the rangers explain the impact of “total darkness.” If all light is absent in the depths of a cave, such “total darkness” is disorienting and debilitating. Rangers stress that without at least some light, even an experienced caver is in grave danger of losing his way and his life.
Without God’s Word, without God’s Torah, as it was called then, human beings are in total darkness. We don’t know where we’ve come from, who we are, or where we’re going. We lose any sense of how to judge what’s right and wrong. We lose the capacity to be good spouses, good neighbors, and good citizens.
With God’s Word, brilliant and illuminating light shines on us. We know we’re God’s special handiwork, created in His image. We know we’re not “here today and gone tomorrow” into the cold darkness of an aimless universe. Above all, we know that in Christ, God has rescued us from the darkness of our own sin. When Jesus spoke to the people, He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8i:12).
At the time of our text, Nehemiah was the governor and Ezra was the priest and scribe. The return of Jewish exiles from Babylonian captivity was not an enormous, mass exodus like the exodus from Egypt. Instead, different groups of Jews returned at different times over many years during the post-exilic period. Ezra led one of those returning groups, and was soon recognized as a leader and spiritual force.
Ezra was well known, you might say, famous, for his astute knowledge of the Bible; and he saw as a major problem the fact that the Bible was seriously neglected at this time. This mass ignorance of God’s Word was his reason for calling the people together for what you might call a national Bible reading. And so they came and they listened, hour after hour.
As Ezra was reading and the people were listening, the Levites (who are like assistants to the priests) went among the people, helping them to interpret and understand what was being read. Our text says that all the people wept when they heard the Words of the law. Based on the response of the people, you could say that this huge, national Bible study was quite a success.
No doubt Ezra was extremely pleased with this event, as among all the people, there were reverence, earnestness, conviction, joy, unanimity, and celebration. And Oh how the Lord was pleased!
Many of you have experienced something similar to what Ezra’s people were feeling, when you’ve gone to a Rally, or a Retreat, like the one the ladies just had. A couple of our young people have described a similar sense of spiritual uplift by going to Camp Lone Star, as a Camper, and especially as a Junior Staffer. One pastor recently described a Youth Rally that he had attended years ago that stayed with him throughout his life.
He attended a Church Youth Rally when he was fourteen, and he remembers a male quartet singing the most unique song he had ever heard. They started singing, “Where is the stone that was hewn out of the mountain?” And as they sang, all of them were diligently looking for something.
They continued, “Where is the stone that came rolling through Babylon?” They moved about the room and looked and looked and looked, and sang, “Where is the stone?”
Finally, as they moved about the room, they found a Bible, and then they sang, “I’ve found the stone!” They were referring to the commandments of God given to Moses that literally were hewn from the mountain. “I”ve found the stone! I’ve found the stone,” they sang with great joy!
Ezra’s people had once again found the stone and they wept for joy.
The Holy Spirit had called Ezra to call this Rally, and they found the stone, — and if I may use a mixed metaphor, — they found the lamp to their feet and the light for their path.
Just as He did for the people of Ezra’s day, God gives us the stone, the lamp, the light, and when we neglect the Word, He rallies us for revival, reminding us through the Word that He gave, out of His great love for us, His one and only Son to die for us, and allowed Him to be nailed to the cross for our redemption and restoration. And let us be reminded as the returning exiles were, that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.