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The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2013
The Old Testament: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Sermon: "People of The Book"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles

Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel

The Old Testament:

All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

People of The Book

Did you ever make a time capsule when you were in grade school? Or did you grow up in a town where one was nostalgically buried in the city square? These moment-in-time collections attempt to communicate something of our current lives and culture to future generations. They also provide the chance for us, if we make it to the future opening date, to reflect on how we were when. 

This started becoming a real trend in the 50s and 60s. That means that many of the 50-year time capsules from those days have been coming due recently. For instance, The Helium Centennial Time Columns Monument was created in Amarillo in 1968. It consists of four time capsules locked in giant, stainless steel spires that were to be opened after 25, 50, 100, and 1,000 years respectively. The second is set to be unearthed in just five more years. One interesting item in the 1,000 year column is a bank passbook for a $10 savings account. Calculating at 4% interest compounded annually until 2968, it will be worth more than 1 quadrillion dollars when opened! (Thatís a one with 16 zeros after it.) Of course, by then, $1 quad might only buy you a venti vanilla latte.

This came to mind this week while reading this morningís Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah. Here, in chapter 8, there's a stirring moment in Hebrew history: a time-capsule moment. Ezra the priest gathers the Hebrews at dawn within Jerusalemís newly rebuilt city walls. He steps through the buzzing crowd of men and women; anyone "who could understand" convened that morning (v. 3). He stands atop a wooden table and opens a sacred book. The crowd hushes and stands to their feet. And then, for the next several hours, (hours, mind you!), they hear the forgotten words of Torah read over them. As they hear the Scriptures, the people break down and weep. 

To understand the full magnitude of that moment and see how it was literally like unearthing a time capsule, we need a quick history refresher. After generations of God's people refusing to live lives of worship and justice, God letís his people go their own way; but not without prophetic warnings of the consequences of their unjust ways. In 597 B.C.E., the consequences come due: Babylon swept in and conquered Judah, destroyed Solomonís great temple, laid Jerusalem waste, and took the Hebrews into captivity. He returned five years later to cart off any he missed the first time. Only the most wretched were left behind to eek out their meager lives amidst the ruins of the once great city. 

For 70 years, the Jews learned to live like Babylonians; learning their culture and alphabet, and forgoing temple worship and Torah/Bible life. But when Persia conquered Babylonia, the new King Cyrus allowed the Hebrews to begin returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Sometime after, Ezra, a Hebrew priest, was dispatched to continue the work. Then Nehemiah persuaded the next king, King Artaxerxes to allow him to return to Jerusalem to rebuild her defenses; her walls and gates (chapter 2).
Without knowing this history, we'd be left wondering why the people started crying when they heard the Torah read to them. Was it tears of conviction over sin? Were they just tired of standing so long? We know Leviticus can be a tough read, but is it worth crying over?

No. Whatís captured here is that dramatic moment when the Hebrews knew they were Hebrews again. Like a time capsule unearthed after more than 80 years, they were suddenly reconnected to how their forbearers had lived and worshiped. They'd been returned to the land God had promised their ancestors. They were standing in and about the rebuilt holy temple. They heard God's voice in Torah. They were weeping and repenting and returning once again to Yahweh. For all the weeping, it was a time of restoration and great hope and, above all, joy. They were God's people again. And the moment they knew that came in the reading of the Scriptures. They understood again that they were indeed the "People of the Book"; to borrow the name that the Qur'an applies to faithful Jews and Christians. The reading of The Torah had restored them to God, and in so doing it had restored them to their true selves. 

So what about us? What does this moment say to us as 21st Century Christians? We too are meant to be People of The Book; the very same Book. Through it we are led to God by Christ, and through its study we learn who we are in Christ, and how to live in his light and to Godís glory. How can we, too, be "People of the Book?"

The very words the Hebrews heard read that day contain the way. In Deuteronomy chapter six are these words. ďKeep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as a frontlet on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.Ē These words come from the Shema: ďHear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.Ē It also contains the great commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. 

It tells us this: the first way to be People of the Book is to keep it in our hearts; To talk about it with our children and grandchildren; To speak of it at home and on the road. The Hebrews had been an oral culture with limited literacy and written Scripture access. So beyond temple Torah reading, this was how they "kept these words." This was their devotional life, and it was a daily interaction with the Word.

For far too many Christians, our only interaction with Scripture happens through preaching or maybe a church small group. Perhaps we add a daily devotional reading. But there are ways that we can more frequently weave Scripture into our daily rhythms.

For centuries, Christians have practiced the Daily Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours. Once viewed as something primarily for unharried monks, the Office has seen renewed focus in the last decade for the very opposite reason; we're over-engaged and fragmented, and it can pull us together. This combination of fixed-hour prayer and Scripture reading forms regular ways to create space for God within otherwise frenetic days. While the hours are set for prayer every three hours from six in the morning to nine at night, they are not a law. We are free to adapt them by selecting fixed times for prayer and Scripture that work in our personal schedules. If working through all the options for the hours in our Prayerbook seems a bit daunting, there are small books of the hours that do that work for us, and can be swiftly read and prayed through. One is Hour By Hour which I have right here; easy to carry, and easy to use.

Further following the Shema, we can read a psalm with the kids' or grandkidís bedtime stories each night. In conversation with our own kids, knowing that we might not always be near enough to do this for their kids, they are thinking of Skyping us in at their kidís bedtime. Another thing is to keep a list of scriptural promises or prayers for ourselves and read one each night before bed. Again, for all of us Bible Challenge folks, if we tack just a few minutes onto the end of our lunch to read a chapter of the Gospels each workday, we'll read the gospels three times through each year. With a bit of creativity and intentionality, we can weave moments to "keep these words" into every normal day.

Hereís a second way the Shema gives us to become People of The Book: Fix its words on our foreheads. The Shema continues by encouraging us to metaphorically bind Scripture on our hands and foreheads as a way to have our lives marked by it. Taken literally, this was the inspiration for the phylacteries of the Pharisees and modern Orthodox Jews. As popular as odd fashion trends can go, strapping Scripture boxes around our heads and forearms would probably not be a great one to take up; especially since Jesus wasnít crazy about it. But what if you could carry the Bible around in your pocket or purse? It could be a quick read at lunch; or catching a chapter while waiting for someone to arrive for an appointment, or sanctifying the wait at the doctor's office.

Even better, more and more of us are carrying smartphones, iPads, Kindlesí and Nooks everywhere we go now. You can load a Bible on those. I have two on my Kindle, one for memory work and depth-study, and a paraphrase for easy reading. Itís handier to cart around than my study Bible; especially since I can adjust the print size. While there are myriad things about our culture that would bring the ancient Hebrews to tears, our access to the Scriptures might bring them to joyous tears again. That access gives us unprecedented opportunities to be more saturated in the words of God, and be People of the Book. 

Of course, the Shemaís main point of all this time spent reading the Book is this: we are to internalize it, not just retin-ize it. In his book, Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson, the editor of my favorite Bible paraphrase, The Message, says this, "Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don't simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, outreach (sic) into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus' name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son." The point of all this Scripture reading is that it leads us into Christian service. 

Thatís the point of reading this Book, studying it, memorizing it. It changes us. In becoming People of the Book, we become more genuinely, and effectively People of God. We become, as James puts it, "doers of the word, and not merely hearers" (James 1:22).

In our reading from Nehemiah this morning we see the stunning image of a people being marked by the Scriptures. They seated their very identity within Torah that day in Jerusalem. Let that image of that time-capsule moment inspire you and me to become "People of the Book." 

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