First Mennonite Church
February 3, 2019
The Bible and I
Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-12 ; Luke 4:16-30
The Scripture readings for today represent two different responses from worshipers upon hearing Scripture being read to them. The Nehemiah passage has a larger background story. It began when Nehemiah was in Babylon as the result of the Jews being taken captives. Nehemiah was serving in the court of Artaxerxes. While there and carrying out his duties, Nehemiah was informed of terrible conditions of the city of Jerusalem, the city of his ancestors. Nehemiah was heartbroken to know that Jerusalem, his people’s holy city, laid in waste. He cautiously asked the king for permission to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild it. Surprisingly, Artaxerxes granted Nehemiah not only the permission to go, but also protection to ensure his safe travel and some materials to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The prophet did a marvelous job organizing the people to carry out the labor-intense project, despite all the internal and external challenges they faced. According to Nehemiah six, verse 15, reconstruction of the wall all around Jerusalem was finished in only 52 days.
After the reconstruction of the wall was done, a multitude of Jews were allowed to return to Judah. And after the people had settled in their towns and villages, they came together to Jerusalem to worship. For most of them, it was their first time to have ever been in Jerusalem, so worshipping together in their most sacred place was beyond anything the people had ever experienced. The people requested Ezra, the priest, to bring the Law of Moses to be read to them. So, Ezra brought out the book and stood upon a wooden platform and began to read the words of God to the people. As Ezra read, a group of translators put the words into Aramaic. Those who had come from Babylon, although being Jews, were unfamiliar with the Hebrew language in which their sacred scriptures were written. That was because they had adopted the language of the Babylonians. Hearing the words of the Lord in a language they could understand was something new and incredibly wonderful. The people began to weep, both of joy and for being heart-stricken by the word of the Lord. The people were moved by the words of God. But the priests encouraged the people telling them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep . . . . 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.” Thus, the people went home to feast and to share with those who did not have and to greatly rejoice, “Because they had understood the words of the Lord read to them.” The congregation of returned exiles went on day after day for seven days to listen from the book of the law of God (v.18). And there was very great rejoicing (v. 17).
The New Testament passage is that of Jesus’ inaugural sermon he gave in his hometown. We are told that Jesus had the custom of attending the synagogue of in his town of Nazareth. Jesus, therefore, was no stranger to those who saw him entering the “church” that day and neither was his participation in the service something new. But this time, upon being given the scroll to read from, he “found the place where it was written:
‘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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
Although this passage had been read and heard a thousand times by those present, there was something that really caught them off guard. After Jesus handed back the scroll to the temple assistant, he “sat down.” Sitting down was the posture of the synagogue teacher; thus, when Jesus sat down he indicated he was about to begin a teaching session. And the eyes of everyone were fixed on him. Jesus said to them, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled before your very eyes.” Upon saying that, the audience began reclaiming Jesus as one of their own. And as such, they expected Jesus to remain with them and to perform greater miracles to benefit his people. Yet, before they even finished reclaiming Jesus as one of their own, Jesus began to tell them that God’s prophets in the past were not sent to their own, but to those considered outsiders by the Jews. Once the audience realized that Jesus would not stay with them and much less perform miracles among them, but that he would go to announce the good news to the poor, to liberate the captives and oppressed, to heal the sick and to announce God’s favor to all, they were filled with rage. Their amazement and goodwill for Jesus turned into disbelief, cynicism, and rage. They wanted to kill him.
These two passages reflect two completely different responses to scriptures. Interestingly, even today the Bible continues to receive varied responses. Some see the Bible as a book of obsolete rules that might have been good for ancient times. Some others see the Bible as a book of mysterious stories, bordering the genre of myths and legends. Still, some others rather not have anything to do with it.
May I ask you, what is your view of the Bible? What is your relationship or experience with it? Are you drawn by it or are you repelled by it? Are you afraid of what you might find there that you would prefer not opening its pages? Or, would you go to it in search of comfort, joy, and guidance? Are moved by its words that you seek to celebrate life with those who struggle in life?
How did your relationship with the Bible begin? Can you remember? As for me, it was my mother who gave me my first Bible. When I just started going to church at around the age of 10, I started discovering the stories of the Bible. Being the first time I was reading them, they were fascinating to me that I sought time to read my Bible. Along the many years of studying the Bible, I have found it to be fascinating, challenging, inspirational, comforting, but most of all, very personal. Personal in the sense that it calls for a personal response. It is hard to read the Book and not be moved by it. For instance, the psalms have a beauty beyond the beauty of a poem. In the stories, there is something beyond the mere attempt to narrate an account. In stories found in the New Testament, there is one encompassing truth—God is love and his love is reaching out to us. In the midst of all these stories and teachings in the Bible, it is Jesus’ words that reveal to us not only the heart of God yearning to reach the human heart, but they also reveal to us of our need of God. It is a need that we may not realize or would want to admit to ourselves. The words of Jesus not only invite us to be connected to God, but that by doing so, we also get connected to one another in his love. The words of Jesus not only reveals the path we need to walk, but in his life we also find the perfect example on how to walk the narrow path.
I pray we all respond to the word of God as the returned exiles did. They rejoiced greatly because they could hear and understand the words of the Lord. They went home to celebrate and to share their joy with those do did not have the means to celebrate. They listened to the word attentively day after day. Let me close with the words of the apostle Paul to the Colossians:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16, 17). Amen!