Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4.14-21
The power of words from scripture. People hearing words from the bible and finding themselves shifted to a place of calling/commitment – Amy Carmichael late 19th century (1 Cor 3, building a foundation..), Sadhu Sundar Singh 1903 age 14 Jesus asking ‘Why are you persecuting me?’, Rev Mark last Sunday. These words came to them because they were already very familiar with scripture – part of the furniture of their lives. Hearing them in what seemed a fresh light moved them a new direction.
In our readings today we see 2 groups of people affected by words from scripture. Most of them would have had some familiarity with the content of what they were hearing. The Israelites listening to Ezra reading from the scroll already knew what was meant by the Law, but they hadn’t heard it read aloud or explained before – they’d been in exile in Babylon remember. Likewise the Jews listening to Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah were familiar with this passage – it resonated with a deep longing and expectation that God would one day send a leader like King David who would restore their God-given destiny to live freely as God’s chosen people. The words Jesus reads had presumably already had a profound impact on him and on his understanding of his life’s task. They are his mission statement.
(Law and Prophets – 2 of the sections of what we call the OT. Hebrew people grouped the scriptures into 3 parts – Law, former and latter prophets and the Writings).
Jesus and the first Christians were familiar with these Hebrew scriptures. Several things to notice – people listened to readings – many were illiterate so had to learn from hearing. The scrolls were hand written, heavy etc. No printing. Couldn’t carry your books round with you. It was a communal activity. Explanation was needed – and, in the case of Ezra’s listeners, translation – they had started speaking Aramaic in Babylon, but their law was written in Hebrew. Their listening produces a profound effect – they are deeply moved, weeping as they hear what had been handed down to them now read in their own language. The reading would have been a powerful reminder of God’s covenant with them, of his promises, his faithfulness in bringing them back to their own land once more. Even more, it reminded them of his constant care – here were the guidelines on how to live in this new situation. He wasn’t leaving them to work it out for themselves in this challenging situation of rebuilding Jerusalem, restarting agriculture, building homes etc; he was giving them a framework for their lives in a new and challenging context. There would have been some sadness too that they were not living up to their calling as God’s covenant people. As with Amy C, Charles W and SS Singh they give them new clarity about their calling.
Those listening to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah in the synagogue were also highly attentive to this emotive passage of scripture. How would Jesus explain it? It’s hard to think of a more dramatic statement than ‘today, in front of your very eyes, this passage is coming true’. I imagine that as Jesus read this passage he was moved as it once again stirred up what was his calling as God’s Beloved Son. His listeners, like Ezra’s, were moved, but in a different direction – more about that next week – or read on to see how they reacted.
Real drama in both descriptions of reading from the bible. Let’s imagine some different scenarios, though;
Supposing Ezra and others who had access to these valuable scrolls of the Law had decided that it would require too much effort to translate the text, or that people would find it too hard to understand, or that it was better that only a few educated men (probably) should have access to them? Or suppose there had been no handing down of what was known about the Law within families during the Exile?
Or, supposing in Jesus’ time hardly anyone had heard a reading from the prophet Isaiah and there was no sharing in families and communities all the stories of Israel’s past, including that golden age of King David?
There would be no context in which the reading would make immediate sense. It would be like pouring water on parched earth around a plant – at first it simply runs off.
This is more the situation we are in today. Although the bible is a best seller, it’s also one of the least read best sellers. It’s easily accessible, unlike in Ezra’s time, – we can Google it, install an app on our phone, read it on our Ipad, listen to it on CDs, all in our first language, almost whatever that is, but its contents are less and less well known, even in churches.
There are 3 main ways in which we nurture our faith as Christians – through a deepening acquaintance with the bible, through prayer and through spending time with other Christians (including sharing Holy Communion together). As we do these things we are being resourced for living Christ-like lives (eg quiet acts of loving kindness) wherever God puts us. We may start in different places – for some of us the doing is the main thing, for others the comfort of being with other Christians and of the sacraments, while a few may start with bible reading and prayer. Bible reading and prayer are probably the hardest for most of us because they don’t easily chime with most of our other activities. Unlike Sadhu Sundar Singh, Amy Carmichae few of us wilI have been brought up with prayer and bible reading from childhood. For us, getting to grips with either of them is more like learning another language or a new computer programme or learning to drive. It requires practice, motivation, and usually some help and support from others. We are like the parched earth around that plant – pour the water of scripture over us and it just runs off; time and patience are needed for it to soak in and take effect.
The church is here to help with this. Some suggestions – we can be helped to develop a daily pattern of bible reading if we use bible reading notes eg BRF, SU. A short 3 week paper version is available over there for 50p. The same notes can be installed as an app on your phone – see details for BRF. You can listen to the bible on CD. If you would like to try this borrow one from the display. Our small groups sometimes work through a book of the bible. If you would like to learn more about the bible by reading with others speak to one of the home group leaders to find out about their programme (Hold up their details on the notice sheet). You may like to go slowly through Sunday’s readings during the week – quite a good place to start – details on the display.
There are many good reasons for reading the bible regularly. The one I’m highlighting today is that through it we gradually (and perhaps sometimes suddenly), develop a sense of the direction in which our life is to go. God doesn’t want us to be in the dark about what to do and where to go when we are following him. He is ready to speak to us through scripture and wants us to listen, just as the Israelites did when Ezra read to them.
Our daughter now lives in Sweden so we are starting to go there regularly. We don’t know Swedish at all. Recently someone told us how thrilled Swedish people are when a foreigner attempts even a few words in their language. It’s such a little used language. I think God is like that when we struggle to read our bibles and pray. His rewards far outstrip our puny efforts.
I’m giving the closing words to Amy Carmichael, from one of the many letters she wrote to fellow workers– ‘So first, give much time to quietness; we have to get our help for the most part directly from our God. We are here to help…and we must each one of us learn to walk with God alone and feed on his word so as to be nourished. Don’t only read and pray. Listen. And don’t avoid the slightest whisper of guidance that comes. May God make you very sensitive (to his voice) and obedient.’ Amen.