Sunday’s sermon: In the Word

Word of God

Texts used – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Psalm 19

  • One of my favorite movies as a kid was The Neverending Story.
    • Movie from 1984[1] based on a book written in 1979[2]
    • Basic storyline: Bastian is running from a bunch of bullies intent on dumping him in a garbage can when he ducks into an old bookshop to hide → encounters bookseller who inadvertently introduces Bastian to a special book: The Neverending Story → Bastian (avid reader of all things fantasy) = intrigued → despite bookseller’s warnings, Bastian steals book (leaving a note saying he’ll return it) and takes it up to the attic at school to read → As he reads what seems like a simple, innocent book, Bastian realizes that this book is unlike any he’s ever read before. He realizes that the story is alive – that as he continues to read, he is slowly but surely becoming a part of the story.
      • Begins with little intrusions into the storyline here and there
      • Ends with Bastian as much a participant in the story as the characters written on the page

Neverending Story

  • Now, as a kid who loved to read, this idea captivated me! I was forever wishing that I could become a part of the books that I read – forever wishing to walk the roads the characters were walking, to hear them speak and to play my own part in their epic tales. → power of great stories
    • Move us
    • Encourage us
    • Engage us
    • Draw us in
    • Make us feel something
    • Make us desire to do and be something different
    • Bring something new to our lives
      • New ideas
      • New challenges
      • New passions
      • New experiences
      • [HOLD UP COPY OF THE BIBLE] → Friends, let me share with you just such a story.
        • Long story
        • Epic story
        • Story that lives and moves, grows and challenges us, inspires us and gets inside us
  • Start with story that we hear in our OT reading
    • First, BACKGROUND: today’s story follows on the heels of some very bad times and then a better time
      • Very bad time = Babylonian exile
        • Time that we’ve talked about before → conquering Babylonian army whisked all the best and brightest is Israel off to live in Babylon for a few generations → added bonus: before victorious Babylonian army left Jerusalem, destroyed it including the Temple – the Israelites beloved center of religious life, the dwelling place of the Most High God → Definitely a low point in the history of the people of Israel.
      • Better time just prior to today’s part of the story = Israelites freed after the Persian army defeated Babylon → return to Jerusalem
        • Returning home after generations away = certainly a big plus
        • But in addition to that, leading up to today’s text, the people of Israel have decided to rebuild. Just following the completion of the new city walls, we find the Israelites celebrating and rejoicing in our Scripture reading this morning … and how do they do that? – text: Standing above all of the people, Ezra the scribe opened the scroll in the sight of all of the people. And as he opened it, all of the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.[3]
    • In celebration … they turned to the Word. In rejoicing … they turned to the Word. In thanksgiving … they turned to the Word. In remembrance of what had been lost and in honor of what they had once again found … they turned to the Word.
  • Important and interesting point: We have to understand that this isn’t necessarily the Word as we think of it today. Very often, when you ask which Scripture passages hold people up … which Scripture passages inspire their faith … which Scripture passages bolster them and strengthen them and bring light to their dark places, most people will respond with a passage from the New Testament or from Psalms.
    • Something stirring from Paul: Now faith, hope, and love remain – these three things – and the greatest of these is love.[4]
    • Something powerful from Jesus: Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.[5]
    • Something that stands the test of time: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.[6]
    • But those aren’t the Scripture passages that got the Israelites raising their hands in praise and adoration and bowing down to worship God with their faces to the ground. Most of those texts weren’t even written yet! What is it that Ezra reads for the people that they find so incredibly stirring and worship-enducing? – text: They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Instruction scroll from Moses, according to which the LORD had instructed Israel.[7] → “They asked Ezra … to bring out the Instruction scroll from Moses.” Did you hear that? The Instruction This is the book of the Law – some unknown portion of what we call the Pentateuch … the first 5 books of our Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
      • Lots of genealogies (“so-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so”)
      • Lots of very detailed instructions
        • How exactly to build various things (including precise measurements)
        • How exactly to offer various sacrifices (which animals and crops to burn and when and in what combinations and quantities)
        • Counts of how much wealth people had amassed (number of cattle, male and female slaves, etc.)
        • Not exactly the text that we find to be the most spiritually stirring reading today.
          • First time I tried to read through the Bible = 4th grade → stopped somewhere in Leviticus (bogged down by all of that)
      • But amidst all of that technical writing (as we could call it today), also find lots of story/narrative
        • Stories of creation
        • Stories of “founding fathers” of the Hebrew faith: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel
        • Stories of people’s epic history – migration to Egypt due to famine, eventual enslavement in Egypt, Moses and Pharaoh and God and the plagues, the first Passover, the escape from Egypt through the Red Sea, and the subsequent 40 years wandering in the desert before they finally reached the promised land … and so on.
        • Gives Israelites a chance to relive that powerful history – ancient though it may have been even at that time – and experience God’s interactions with them all over again
    • Hearing this Word of God – whichever portion it might have been – had the Israelites worshipping with their whole selves, declaring their faith with their entire beings – their bodies, their voices, and their very souls. → not hard to imagine the words of our psalm for this morning being uttered by those Israelites: The LORD’s Instruction is perfect, reviving one’s very being. The LORD’s laws are faithful, making naive people wise. The LORD’s regulations are right, gladdening the heart. The LORD’s commands are pure, giving light to the eyes. … No doubt about it: your servant is enlightened by [God’s judgments]; there is great reward in keeping them.[8]
      • Can hear the people letting Word of God move them
      • Can hear the people letting Word of God draw them back to God
      • Can hear the people letting Word of God enliven them and push them and ground them in their identity as the people of God once more → being changed by the ongoing story of God even as they were participating in that self-same story just like Bastian in The Neverending Story
  • Friends, as Christians, this is the epic story that we inherit. This is the Word of God in which we live and move and have our being. It is the tether that anchors us to the God of creation and salvation, the God of action and compassion, the God of ancient times and the God of the present and the God of whatever is yet to be.
    • Play clip from “Echo the Story” curriculum[9]: “The Bible is an epic that reaches beyond its pages and can enter our lives right now. … May we find ourselves in this amazing story.”
    • Now, while it’s certainly true that we’re not adding books to the Bible anymore, it’s also true that through our interactions with God in Scripture – whenever we open this book, whenever we read these words aloud or to ourselves, whenever we share the good news that is declared within these pages, whenever we dig deeper into this crazy text that molds and shapes and guides our lives – through all these different interactions with God in Scripture, we continue to add depth to the text for us and for the people around us.
      • Layers of meaning
      • Stories of our own winding around and through these ancient stories
        • Story that never changes AND YET
        • Story whose meaning is ever evolving and speaking to different people in different parts of the world in a wide variety of ways
          • E.g. – illustration from Dr. Eric Barreto (Baptist minister and NT professor at Luther Seminary, focus of study = function of race and ethnicity in NT/faith/theology) from presbytery meeting yesterday → parable of the landowner[10]
            • Landowner goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for the day → continues to hire more and more shifts throughout the day → at the end of the day, landowner pays all workers for a day’s wage – those who had worked since sun-up as well as those who’d only been in the field for an hour
            • Barreto’s point: exact same words heard very differently in white context vs. immigrant/migrant worker context
              • White context: see injustice in inequality of pay → lesson = about God’s justice being greater than our own
              • Migrant context → lesson about equality and God providing what was needed for the day (1 day’s wage = food for the family today)
            • Exact same story heard in two very different ways
      • In the Word, we find meaning and purpose. In the Word, we find challenges – challenges to our habits, to our culturally-engrained beliefs, to our ways of thinking, and to the brokenness all around us. In the Word, we find guidance and inspiration. In the Word, we find solace and reconciliation. In the Word, we find stories and poems, laws and letters, revelations and prophecies. In the Word, we find a world of dichotomies: love and pain, peace and war, justice and injustice, darkness and light, brokenness and way to wholeness. In the Word, we find a God who desperately loves us and a Savior who planted himself right in the midst of all our craziness and frailty and mess in order to bring us back to God. In the Word, in this eternal story, we find our own stories. This book is alive, friends. At least, it can be … if you let it. Amen.

 

CHARGE: There’s a line from our psalm this morning that you might have missed, but it’s a great line to end our service with today because it brings us full circle. So as you go from this place this morning, go with these familiar words in your minds and on your hearts: Let the words of [our mouths] and the meditations of [our hearts] be pleasing to you, LORD, [our] rock and [our] redeemer.

BENEDICTION: And may the love of God surround you. May the peace of Jesus Christ abound in you and through you. And may the power of the Holy Spirit astound you. Amen.

 

 

[1] The Neverending Story, directed by Wolfgang Peterson, distributed in the U.S. by Warner Bros. Pictures, July 20, 1984.

[2] Michael Ende. The Neverending Story. (Germany: Thienemann Verlag), 1979.

[3] Neh 8:5-6.

[4] 1 Cor 13:13.

[5] Mt 11:28.

[6] Ps 23:1 (KJV).

[7] Neh 8:1b.

[8] Ps 19:7-8, 11.

[9] “Echo the Story” curriculum from SparkHouse, © 2014, video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug8VAR6Ch2Y.

[10] Mt 20:1-16.

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