A sermon on Nehemiah 8: 1-10 & Luke 4: 14-21 by Nathan Nettleton
On the face of it, what we were doing a few minutes ago was a very strange thing. We sat, in relative stillness, and listened to several people read extracts from a very old book. Not only did we listen to people reading from it, but we made a bit of a fuss of the book itself, even before we read from it. The book was carried in in procession, accompanied by singing and dancing, and many of us bowed towards the book as it passed before us. And then when each reading was finished, we declared ourselves to have been ‘silenced’ by its words, and we sat in silent contemplation for a time. On the face of it, very strange. And yet similar things happened in many thousands of churches all over the world today, and on other days too, and in synagogues and mosques and other places of religious gathering too. And on this particular Sunday, two of the readings we heard described similar things things happening themselves. The Bible doesn’t speak about itself very often, but tonight we heard two passages that describe scripture being read in the gathered assembly of the people of faith. And for that reason, I thought it would be a good occasion on which to discuss what this seemingly strange action around this ancient book is all about.
It would be very easy to give a pat answer about this book being the word of God, God’s self-revelation in writing, but what do we mean by that? And why, when most of us are quite capable of reading it at home by ourselves, do we read it out loud when we gather and with such ceremony?
The first reading we heard gives us some clues. It came from the book of Nehemiah, and it describes a gathering that took place in Israel some four hundred years before the time of Jesus. The Hebrew people have returned from exile and are reestablishing their identity as the covenant people of God in the land of Israel. And as part of reclaiming and renewing their identity, they hold this enormous public gathering which centres around the reading of Holy Scripture; in this case, the books of the law of Moses, what we know now as the first five books of our Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. In fact it tells us in verse three that Ezra the Priest read the scriptures to the people from early morning until midday. Anyone want to try a half day scripture reading service sometime?!
But the real point here is not how long they listened for. The point is why. They were seeking to renew their covenant with God, to reestablish their identity as God’s faithful people, and they recognised that listening to the words of this book was central to their identity and to the living out of their covenant with God. This book told the stories of their people, the stories that give them their understanding of who they were and how they were related to God and to the world around them. It told the stories that had been read to their ancestors for generations before them, the stories that bound them together across the years, from Moses until the present day. And these stories had been preserved and continually read precisely because the continual reading of them continued to prove itself to be the glue that bound them together in a covenant relationship with God. The reading of scripture continued to be a place of epiphany, of revelation, of encounter with the living Spirit of God. And so when they had been off track and needed to renew their relationship with God, they knew that they needed to return to scripture, to the practice of gathering together to hear and open themselves to the Word of God together.
In the reading we heard from Luke’s account of the gospel, it is Jesus himself who stands up and reads the scripture in the midst of the gathered assembly. This time it is not a big national assembly after a time of catastrophe. Instead, it is the small regular weekly gathering of the local synagogue congregation in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. Jesus is invited to bring them one of the scripture readings set for the day, and to preach on it. He reads from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And then he begins to preach. We’ll get a bit more of his sermon next week. We only heard his opening line tonight: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I want us to note a couple of implications of that opening line. Firstly, Jesus is doing and expecting the same thing as Ezra. He is reading from the ancient scriptures and expecting that they are intensely and immediately relevant right here, right now. This reading is not motivated by historical curiosity. People do not come to worship for the next instalment of the “History of what happened to the Israelites”. We come in expectation that God will speak a word into our lives, here and now. That’s what Jesus is expecting. That’s what Jesus announces is happening. Right here. Right now. This scripture is being fulfilled. What it says here, God is doing now, among you.
Secondly, Jesus is pointing us back to the Bible itself by his example of reverence for it and expectation of it. You see, Jesus could bypass the Bible if he wished. Clearly Jesus trumps the Bible. Jesus is, in himself, the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is, himself, God’s number one self-revelation in the world. God reveals Godself to us in all sorts of ways — in nature, in bread and wine and water in worship, in the still small voice, in prayerful contemplation, and in the reading of the Bible — but all of them are secondary to Jesus. When it comes to the self-revelation of God, Jesus is the one full and complete and infallible and perfect revelation, and all the rest are, by comparison, mere witnesses to this one. So Jesus could have, by rights, simply opened his mouth and proclaimed the word of God without much reference to the scriptures at all. But he doesn’t. And thank God he doesn’t. Because Jesus knows that we are going to have to know what to do when he’s gone, when we can no longer walk down to the local synagogue and hear him in person. And so he points us again to this ancient book. He points us again to the primary witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus. “If you want to be my people, my disciples, then keep gathering around the reading of this book, because it is in the reading of this book that you will hear what I am doing among you. It is in the reading and hearing of this book that you will learn what I am bringing to fulfilment right here, right now, in your midst.
You see, the communal reading and hearing of scripture is an event, and it is an event in which God has promised to be present as living Holy Spirit to speak and to guide and to form us as a holy people. The Bible is not a letter laying out instructions point by point addressed specifically to the present circumstances of this or any other congregation. But when we faithfully gather and prayerfully attend to the reading of this book, God promises to be among us, living and active and communicative. That doesn’t mean there is no point reading it by yourself. Read it all you can, and God will often speak to you through it. But the event of the gathered reading and hearing is something more, something in which God promises to be even more present and active, because God is primarily forming a holy people, not just a loose coalition of holy individuals.
You will notice that this wisdom is embodied in the cycle of scripture readings that we provide in the notice sheet each week. There are recommended readings for each day, and most of you will have to do those readings alone, because most of us don’t have the opportunity to attend daily gatherings. But the readings are chosen to relate to the ones that we do hear together on Sunday’s. The readings for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday reflect further on the issues that emerged from the Sunday service readings. And then the readings for Thursday, Friday and Saturday introduce themes and ideas and background details relevant to the readings set for the next Sunday. So can I encourage you to take advantage of those readings. By reading and reflecting on them during the week, you will be better prepared to open yourself to God’s voice in the reading of scripture in the gathered assembly on Sunday.
In our congregational covenant, we acknowledge that we are called to attend to the voice of God in scripture reading. And we are so called because God wants to speak to us and to form us as a holy people prepared and anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and to proclaim that the time of the Lord is now. Let us read and listen and prayerfully open ourselves. Let us not flee the word that comes to save us!