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How Scripture Makes us Different
a homily based on Nehemia 8:1-10
by Rev. Tom Hall

Everytime we enter the doors into the church we must always ask two questions. "What does this Word say to my life?" and "What do the Scriptures in the lectionary on this day say to this community?" Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once described a sermon as "a conversation between a preacher and a congregation at a particular time in their lives together, informed by their common worship and reading of Scripture." Part of our worship experience, then, is to enter into conversation with the biblical texts / the community / and ourselves and to somehow be different for our coming to church.

That’s the ideal! To have an encounter with the Word and through Scripture to encounter God. And through that encounter, to be somehow different. To appropriate Scripture is to leave different-empowered, encouraged, challenged, blessed, or healed. We preachers would like to think to that every time we approach the pulpit with sermon in hand, ears are cupped, eyes are fixed, the congregation sitting on the edge of their pews ready for God’s Word to break beyond the preacher’s words. But sometimes our best words about the Word are preempted by yawns, scribbles, or ceiling tile-gazing. How can we come to church and listen to Scripture in a very different way than we watch television? Television has trained us to be passive. To be data-gatherers that we neither need nor can act upon-unless we’ve been selected as a game show contestant. How can we leave church today and in place of, "That was interesting," or "Good sermon, pastor," say instead, "My life will be different because of that Word"?

Several clues await our discovery in the lessons for this Sunday. First, consider what we hear out of Nehemiah 8. This passage reminds us that all of our worship comes out of the Word. Notice the unusual scene from the story-the people of Israel, just back from seven decades as refugees and exiles, have gathered for no other reason than to hear the Scriptures read. Notice their reaction: they weep for the grief of it and the rejoice for the joy of it!

Nehemiah the subcontractor, has just completed a major building project-the wall surrounding Jerusalem. This event would have been featured on Ripley’s "Believe it Or Not" as a stunning accomplishment. Everyone had said it could never be done and it had been forbidden by an edict of the conquering monarch. But Nehemiah, the little red train that never gives up hope, persuades Artaxerxes to let him reconstruct the wall and supply the building materials. So Nehemiah leaves Susa in Babylon and begins construction work in Jerusalem; he finishes the job in just fifty-two days! So astounding is this phenomenon that the nations surrounding Israel "were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God."

I admire pastors who have such uncanny ability as Nehemiah to subcontract, to help their congregations envision a new church building, to choose carpet colors and ask for more money. My former congregation recently purchased twelve additional acres on which to build a new worship center. As we got further into the project, the more stress I began to feel. Meetings with attorneys and real estate brokers, several meetings with a difficult seller and then ministry-mapping. I had only been prepared to select the carpet color. I knew then and forever will know that God has special Nehemiah and Sons, inc. pastors that relish such challenge. But not me.

So Nehemiah galvanizes his team to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. But as Marva Dawn wryly notes, "what good is a wall, if the people inside are rotten?" Good point. So Nehemiah 8 tells us about how God reconstructed the people-through the public reading and teaching of Scripture. The Law. The Law-Torah in Hebrew-was the way that Jewish people could be led by God; the Torah showed people God’s will. The Torah was instruction, divine design, and direction for God’s people. No wonder they listen for three hours nonstop.

But did you notice that this was not one of those sober-faced services that sometimes happen to us at 11:00 am on Sunday mornings? Weeping yes-Scripture pointed to the broken places, places out of joint, out of sync, places that required some repair. But the gathering was also a place to celebrate! Nehemiah called for the praise bands, the liturgical dancers and the drums. They could well have been signing, "My God is an awesome God." The cause for their celebration, for their great rejoicing, was that they had understood the Word, that they knew the Lord was their strength.

Isn’t that what we are supposed to do when we gather to worship each Sunday? We certainly must not ignore the broken places, the places out of joint in our lives and community. God’s Word calls us to become acutely aware of our need for grace. The worship also leads us to the God who is the source of our energy. Everytime we listen to the Scriptures we are encouraged to trust God as the source of our life, the power and love of our life.

One of the transforming qualities of Scripture is that it includes an abundance of parties! All of us-Jews and Christians-in Scripture are often called to the dance floor. We are encouraged to revel in the Joy of being God’s people, finding God’s favor. Our Jewish friends enjoy at least one party a week-Shabbat-the Torah invites celebration and praise of God. One whole day of partying per week! And we too, have the same reason to celebrate-the great privilege to gather for worship and then to be God’s people in the world.

In closing, please recall the gospel lesson for this day. The story has been halved-you’ll hear part two next Sunday. But the story has some of the overtones of Nehemiah 8. Jesus has returned to his hometown after an unknown hiatus. When he reads the lesson for the day, the congregation is impressed with his demeanor and skill. "Who is this man?" they wonder. "We had thought that this was merely the carpenter’s son."

The passage is one quite familiar to us-perhaps much too familiar.

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 favor.

As he concludes the reading he says that this passage is fulfilled right now and in this place and in this person. This text is true for all of us even if we are not physically labeled in Isaiah’s words. The Word is alive among us, and it is true for all of us that Christ coming into our lives changes everything. "Today," Jesus said to the shocked residents of Nazareth, "today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing! I am here. The kingdom of God has arrived!"

The odd part of the story is the way Jesus’ congregation heard that Word. They were shocked! Startled. Stunned. I wonder why this isn’t as startling to us? As one writer says, "Why do we let this Word become so ordinary, so non-mysterious, so non-threatening?" Jesus has brought God’s kingdom to us and invites us to be part of it.

The Scriptures in our two lessons carry the same two movement theme. The people in Nehemiah’s day wept because the Word exposed them for who they were. But doesn’t God’s Word today reveal the same to us? The Word discloses our broken places. But as in Nehemiah’s day as in our day, the Word also makes us different. The same Word that pointed to sin and brokenness of the ancient people also points to God and God’s care. In Nehemiah’s day, the Word was restored, read, and taught; in our day, the Word is read, taught and it in its hearing, brings us the kingdom of God. Gathering to hear the Word of God for the People of God is a moment to celebrate.

The Scriptures are more than just information they can transform and make us different! Today this Scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing. Jesus the Word has already set us free, healed our blind spirits, opened our ears. May God keep fulfilling it through us so that in the days to come we will celebrate the kingdom and carry it out from this place into the world. In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.