Our scripture readings today connect us with some of the most significant moments in the story of God’s people down through the years. Two of them are mentioned in today’s scriptures, and a third one is in the background, even though it’s not mentioned in the text. A fourth one can be brought in to complete the picture. Are you with me so far? Good!
Moving in chronological order, the first moment isn’t specifically mentioned in today’s text, but I would argue that it’s present in the background. God has led his people out of slavery in Egypt, with Moses as their leader. They’ve come through the Red Sea where God has delivered them from the Egyptian army. Moses then leads them out into the desert, down to Mount Sinai where he first met God in the burning bush. The people gather at the foot of the mountain, and then Moses goes up to meet God. There’s thunder and lightning and all kinds of awesome displays of God’s power.
What happens on top of the mountain? God gives Moses laws or teachings that will shape the life of the community together. The most important ones, the Ten Commandments, are actually carved into two stone tablets that will be kept in a special box, the ark of the covenant. Those ten commandments are the central obligations of Israel under God’s covenant with them. But there are other commandments too. We’re not sure just how much of the content of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, actually goes back to the time of Moses, but some of it does anyway. Moses brings this Law down the mountain and reads it to the people, and they accept their obligation to keep it. These are the teachings that will shape their lives as God’s holy people.
Now, fast forward a thousand years to the events described in today’s reading from Nehemiah.
In 597 and 586 B.C. the Babylonians took huge numbers of the people of Judah and Jerusalem into exile in Babylon. Jerusalem was destroyed, most of the educated classes were deported, and people from other parts of the empire were settled in Judah, where they mixed in and intermarried with the locals.
The exile lasted for about fifty years, and then over a period of about a century groups of people began coming back from Babylon. The first wave, in 537 B.C., started rebuilding the Temple. The second wave completed that job in about 515. The third wave, under the priest Ezra, established the Law or Torah of God as the shaping force in the life of the community. That took place in about 458 B.C. A few years later Nehemiah led another wave back, and they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.
So our reading from the book of Nehemiah describes something that happens during the third wave, in about 458 B.C. Ezra the priest calls a huge public meeting of what he calls ‘the assembly’. At this meeting he spends several hours reading to the people from the law of Moses. He has help with this. Some Levites work with him, and one of their jobs is translation, because the Law is written in Hebrew, but in Babylon Aramaic has become the first language of a lot of the Israelites. So the Levites translate, and they also explain the Law and help the people understand it.
It’s likely that this is a much bigger and more complicated document than the one given to Moses a thousand years before. Many modern scholars think the Law evolved over the years as Israel found itself in new situations, and new traditions were collected and added to it. This doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit wasn’t involved. It just means we have to take the human origins of the book very seriously.
So this is like a second Mount Sinai experience, a thousand years after the first one. God’s people are gathered in the presence of God, with their authorized leader and his disciples in front of them. Ezra gives them the Torah, just as Moses did, and the people pay close attention; ‘the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law’ (Nehemiah 8.3). Just as the Law of Moses shaped the life of the Israelite community, so this renewed and expanded law is going to shape the life of the returned exiles in Jerusalem and Judea.
Now fast forward another five hundred years to the third and fourth events. The third event is recalled in today’s gospel, from Luke 4.14-21. Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist at the river Jordan. The Holy Spirit has led him into the desert where he’s been tested by the devil. The twelve tribes of Israel were in the desert forty years. Jesus is in the desert forty days, and soon after he emerges, he chooses twelve disciples.
Luke tells us that Jesus returns to Galilee full of the Holy Spirit, and goes to worship in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. There’s always a scripture reading, and any man in the congregation can be called on to read it and then interpret it for the people. Jesus is called on, and the reading for the day is from Isaiah 61. It talks about the Lord’s anointed servant who will come to bring good news to the poor, deliverance for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.
Interestingly, Jesus seems to omit one sentence from the reading. After the phrase ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, Isaiah adds, ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’. But Jesus leaves this out. This is an example of the way Jesus relates to the Old Testament revelation. He’s a faithful Jew, keeps the Law and practices the traditions. He stands in continuity with the story of God’s people recorded in the Old Testament. But he doesn’t necessarily endorse everything in it, especially the violent and vengeful bits.
So here once again we have God’s people gathered, and God’s anointed leader stands up in front of them. Perhaps he has some of his future disciples with him already; we aren’t told. He reads out to them from the Law and the Prophets, the books that shape the life of God’s people. And then he adds one vital interpretive detail for them. He says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4.21) In other words, “This person Isaiah was foretelling, the one who would bring good news to the poor and set the captives free? I’m the one. I’m the one the story was written about.”
So we’ve had Moses giving the Law at Mount Sinai in roughly 1500 B.C., Ezra giving the Law to the returned exiles in Jerusalem in roughly 500 B.C., and Jesus claiming to be the fulfilment of the Law as he reads it in the synagogue in Nazareth in roughly 26 A.D. About the same time as that, give or take a few months, Jesus gathers another community together. Just like Moses on Mount Sinai, Matthew tells us Jesus took this community up a mountain, and then he gave them his teaching, the teaching that would shape the life of his disciple community. We call it ‘the Sermon on the Mount’.
The Sermon stands in continuity with the Old Testament story, but it goes further. Jesus says it’s not enough just to obey the letter of the Law. Our lives have to be shaped by the spirit of love and reconciliation and faithfulness and simplicity and generosity, all the things that are at the heart of the Law. Once again, Jesus doesn’t unconditionally endorse everything in the old covenant. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.43-44). It’s paradoxical. Sometimes Jesus seems to be placing himself under the Law, but at other times he’s claiming authority over it. He assumes he has the right to do that. He assumes he’s allowed to interpret it for us, telling us how to understand it, and which commandments still apply and which ones are no longer valid.
I said at the beginning that I was going to talk about four significant events, but now I have to add one more. It’s the one that’s happening right now, as I’m standing in front of you this morning.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to compare myself to Jesus, or even Moses or Ezra! But I’m struck by the parallels between us as God’s people today and the people who have received God’s Word in time past.
We in the Church have been formed by the message of the holy Scriptures. These books have shaped our life together as a community for centuries. We’ve read these stories, sung them, acted them out in plays, studied them, tried to understand them, seen ourselves in them, struggled with them, got mad at them, rejoiced in them — all that, and much more. Our Jewish friends passed the Hebrew scriptures on to us. Our Christian forebears passed on the New Testament books. All through our life together, God has spoken to us as these books have been read.
This continues today. Let me point out the ways.
I mentioned the biblical scholars who think the Law of Moses grew and developed over the thousand years from Moses to Ezra. Scholars today have continued to study the biblical texts. We know much more now about the ancient languages than the men who translated the King James Version in 1611. We know a lot more than they did about ancient history and the way of life of the ancient people. We know that the process by which the Holy Spirit gave us these books was long and complicated. We can see different traditions and different points of view in the pages of these books.
There are two advantages we have today over Moses’ people, over Ezra’s people, even over Jesus disciples: literacy and printing. Most of us can read. And printed books are now cheap. Anyone can own a Bible. And if you shell out a few extra bucks and buy a big fat study Bible, you’ve got the best of modern scholarship helping you understand the Scriptures, all in one volume.
But still, we gather together and read them. In our Anglican service, the reading of the scriptures is one of the central actions. Old Testament, psalm, New Testament, Gospel. We even stand for the reading of the Gospel, which reminds us of how God became a human being and lived among us. Then follows the sermon. I attempt to help you understand what we’ve read and apply it to your lives and our life together as a community. Once again, we want to be shaped by God’s word to us.
Just like in the time of Ezra, there needs to be some translating. The scriptures are written in Hebrew and Greek, and a bit of Aramaic. I don’t know if anyone here speaks any of those languages! So biblical scholars have tried to translate, which is a tough job. Different scholars have produced different attempts. We read from the New Revised Standard Version, which is reasonably good. But there are other good ones too: The Revised English Bible, the New International Version, the New Living Translation. It’s good to own three or four, so we can compare.
And then, like Ezra’s friends the Levites, the preacher gets to work. I spend about six hours a week preparing for this work. I’m grappling with the text. What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean for us, for our daily lives? How can we live by it? How can we let it shape our lives?
But it all leads inexorably to the last point. Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. We don’t worship the Bible. We receive it gratefully, but we let it point us to Jesus. This is a big library with hundreds of thousands of words. Who is the authorized teacher? Jesus is. John’s Gospel says that he is ‘the Word of God’. He is the embodiment of God’s message to us. If we get confused about some other part of the Bible, we refer it to Jesus. We check with his teaching. What would he say about this subject? The Old Testament psalmist says ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119.105). But Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8.12)
Let me sum up.
As you and I listen to the Word of God this morning we stand in a long tradition going back all the way to Mount Sinai, fifteen centuries before Jesus. We are God’s covenant people. God teaches us the way of life of his covenant people. That’s what the Scriptures do: they teach us what sort of community God wants us to be.
But it’s not always easy to understand the scriptures. Even in Ezra’s day, a thousand years later, interpreters were needed to translate and explain. Communities of faith in the Jewish and Christian traditions have a long history of setting people aside for this role. “Please study these things”, we say to these people. “We know we need to read them for ourselves, but we need some help. So please take all the time you need to understand them accurately, and then add that learning into the mix when our community discusses the scriptures together. We need that.” I’m not just talking about preachers here. I’m also talking about the biblical scholars who give their whole lives to understanding these texts.
But the most important interpreter is Jesus. John Stott was a great Anglican preacher who died a few years ago. He was the vicar of All Souls Langham Place in London for over fifty years. On his pulpit he had inscribed these words from the gospel of John: ‘Sir, we want to see Jesus’. I love that! Whatever else you hear from me week by week, I hope you’ll always hear the words and actions of Jesus. He’s the heart of God’s revelation to us.
And what’s it all about? Our psalm for today talks about God’s laws:
‘More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward’ (Psalm 19:10-11).
Note the wording carefully. ‘In keeping them there is great reward’. Not ‘for’ keeping them, but ‘in’ keeping them. We don’t follow God’s instructions because he’s going to give us some other reward for it. The following of God’s instructions isits own reward. The way of life they teach us is the best and wisest and most joyful and most rewarding life. So we thank God for giving us these books, and we thank God most of all for giving us Jesus to explain them and embody their message for us, so that we don’t have to walk in darkness, but can have the light of life.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.