God’s written Word, the Scriptures, shape us in the relationship the Triune God is creating in us through the life, death and resurrection of the Son. Ancient and strange as these words are, they lead us to our Lord Jesus and to life.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday after Epiphany, year C; texts: Nehemiah 8:1-10; Psalm 19; Luke 4:14-21
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We are a strange and peculiar people who do a strange and peculiar thing. I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but we just did it, right now. The difficulty is that we’ve seen it done so often we’ve come not to consider it odd. You and I heard three people read from an ancient Book. We gathered together today and asked three people, a lector, an assisting minister, and the presiding minister, to open and read from a book that in its newest part is nearly 2,000 years old, but in its oldest is closer to 4,000 years old. We also sang together a song from that book that has been sung pretty continually by human beings for nearly 3,000 years.
More to the point, we asked people to read these old words to us today because we have agreed amongst ourselves, and with people like us in the world, that these elderly texts are actually words from the God who made all things. We asked people today to read these words because we also have decided and believed, along with many like us in the world, that these ancient readings matter to our lives. And you have called me to the task of now speaking to you about these words, as if these words should and do matter to us in our lives.
But do we understand how strange and foreign this is? How unusual we are? We Christians are not people who find God by gazing at our navels. We don’t find God by using mind-altering substances. We don’t find God in the desires of our heart, even, or in our hopes and dreams. In fact, we Christians do not believe we even find God. We believe the God who made all things finds us, seeks us out, and does this in a large part through these ancient words. Though these words are millennia old, we believe they also were written for us.
And so, we are people of the Book, as are our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers. We are connected most tightly to the belief not that God is found anywhere, but that God, and God’s plan, and all we need to know about God, can be found in a two to four thousand year old book. And that is very strange. And unfamiliar to the secular world in which we live.
If we’re not able to stop for a moment and recognize how utterly different from the culture what we do here is, what we do when we open a Bible in our homes or study it, when we seek out preaching, we risk taking for granted that we actually believe these words will change us, move us, matter to us. And we risk losing the very truth to which these old words will lead us.
When we consider Ezra and Jesus, however, we see a familiar sight, and begin to understand once more.
In Nehemiah 8, the scribe Ezra stands on a wooden tower built over the people and reads to them from the law of God. (Which sounds a lot like what I’m doing right now.) This is after the exile, as we heard this morning, “the people of Israel [were now] settled in their towns.”
Ezra and Nehemiah are among those scribes who are determined to help Israel correct the problems which led to Babylon’s destruction of their nation and their Temple. To do this, they need the people to hear God’s Word again, and since the people speak a different dialect or even language, and since they want all to be sure to understand, they intersperse the crowd with interpreters, other scribes and Levites, to help people know what’s going on.
The people are so overwhelmed by hearing God’s Word, they weep. But Ezra encourages a different reaction. He encourages them to be filled with joy, for they are hearing from God, and this joy should provide them great strength. Ezra wants them to hear and obey, and they do. But he also wants them to see the joy of having the Word of God read to them, and explained.
And look what happens when Jesus comes to his hometown, early in his ministry. He goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom, Luke reminds. But notice this: at the synagogue, the people, his neighbors and friends, people who saw him grow to adulthood, do not ask, “Jesus, tell us about your view of the world. Tell us what you’ve been doing, your experiences. Tell us what you think of life.”
No. They give him a scroll, and say, “read it. Read it.” They ask him to give them the Word. They are Jews, after all. They say, “read this to us.” And so he does. And remarkably, like the people of Ezra’s time, they expect that it will be important to them. They wait afterward, like with Ezra, for preaching to come, for explanation, based on that Word. These ancient words are central to what they want from Jesus.
And so it is with you, and your expectations of me. You did not call me to come here and share my views of the world. To philosophize and share my wisdom. When you come here on Sundays, you don’t want me to read my latest essay on the human condition. There are lots of folks who write blogs on the Internet or essays in papers online and in print, people who say what they think about life and the world. Some are good, others not.
But that’s not what you have called me to Mount Olive to do. No, when I first came here, and now even today, you gave me a book. You gave me the Bible. You called me to be your pastor because I am ordained a minister of Word and Sacrament. And you said to me, and still say, “read this Book, this Word to us. Then, help us to know it better.”
We are people of the Book. God’s Book. Nothing bothers us more about preaching than when we hear a sermon where the pastor preaches with no reference to the Scriptures at all. We want to hear these ancient words. And then we want the preacher to help us understand them, like Ezra, like Jesus, because we believe they matter to our very life.
And that’s because, unlike any other words, we believe these words not only bring us life, they lead us to God.
This is very different from other words, new or ancient, and other readings.
Three years ago Mary and I visited Hannah in Nottingham, England, where she was studying for a year. We were able to join her and her other classmates from Luther at a production in the town of Stratford-on-Avon, at the theater of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a production of one of Shakespeare’s comedies. It was wonderful. These skilled actors spoke 500-year-old words and made them alive, they brought life and light to our evening, laughter and tears, joy.
This was a night we’ll remember for a long time. But though we heard these ancient words and found good in them, it was and is a very different thing from how we come before the written Word of God. Literature, essays, plays, movies, drawings, photographs, sculptures, many human creations and art forms inspire and move us. I’ve seen some beautiful art in my life, read some transformative works.
But while they teach us about the human condition, about ourselves, about life, even about good and evil, while they help us grow and become better people, while they challenge us in many ways, there is one thing that we do not claim about them. We do not claim or believe that they are God’s revelation to us which leads us to know definitively what God is doing in the world.
That, however, is what we claim about this book we call the Bible. There isn’t time here to fully consider why Christians, like our sisters and brothers of other faiths, attach such meaning to these particular ancient words. It’s worth a conversation, though, and worth our thought and consideration.
But for today, what we can say is that we continue in a line of believers that stretches back over 3,500 years or more, who have seen and experienced in these words the very voice of God. Who have claimed that the God of the universe speaks to us through these words and leads us to life and salvation, calls to us, challenges us, judges us, loves us.
We stand in the same line as Thomas Cranmer, whose collect from the 1552 Book of Common Prayer is appointed as our Prayer of the Day today, which says that God has given us these Scriptures for our nourishment and life. And so we ask God to help us “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” That we take these words literally to heart, to our guts, to the core of our very being (for as the psalmist says they taste sweeter than honey), so that they might change us and shape us.
And the primary reason we need these words to do that is that it is these words which lead us to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God who saves us. Each of the books of the Bible works together with the others ultimately to show us what the Son of God was and is doing in the world for God’s creation.
There’s an old Communion hymn that didn’t make the cut from the green book to our new worship book, which begins “Here, O my God, I see thee face to face.” That’s why these words are different from any other for us. That’s why we gather week after week to hear them. That’s why we pick up our Bibles for study and daily prayer, something we never do with Shakespeare, beautiful as his writing may be.
Because here, in these words, as we encounter them daily, we see our Lord face to face and find his love for us, his grace, his invitation. These become words by which we live and die, words which change everything for us.
We are a strange people.
We are strange people, we with this book we call God’s Word. And though it may seem strange to the rest of our society, it is the place where we can find our Lord, just as the people of Nazareth saw him, revealed as the anointed One of God who brings healing and life to the world.
But now, of course, the real work begins. Knowing that we agree this is the Triune God’s voice for us, leading us to the Son, now we must read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest together. We will disagree at times about what we are hearing from God. We will not always understand. But such is the power of this written Word of God, this gift the Spirit helps us with, that when we do make mistakes of reading, of understanding, of interpretation, the Word continues to work in and among us and correct us, to bring us back to God’s path. It has done so often in the past, and will continue to do so with the help of the Spirit.
So we do this together, and with sisters and brothers in the Church around the world, and trust that our Lord the Living Word will open our hearts and minds to know what we need to know for life.
So strange as it may seem, this is why we do what we do. Because the God of the universe has spoken to us in these words, and led us to the Son of God who gives life to us and the world. There is nothing more important for us to know, to hear, to take in. It is our blessing to do this. It is our blessing to share this with the world. Thanks be to God for this gift!
In the name of Jesus. Amen