Sunday, January 24, 2010

Listen for the Word

    Nehemiah 8:1-10

    Legend has it that when I was a very young child I would stand up in my crib and  preach.  I'd shake my finger and prattle away, speaking to no one in particular.  I can't say that I was a great preacher in those days, but I did make an impression on my grandmother.  She told my mother: “Someday Bob will be a preacher.”  Now, I can't confirm this story since my memory doesn't go back that far, but if it’s true, I hope the quality of my preaching has improved!

   It’s one thing to preach from a crib and another to preach from a pulpit.  In fact, it  does take a bit of audacity to be a preacher.  Take for instance Barbara Brown Taylor’s comparison of a preacher to a tight rope walker:
    Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tight rope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins.  The first clears her throat and spreads her notes; the second loosens his shoulders and stretches out one rosin-soled foot to test the taut rope.  They both step out into the air, trusting everything  they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do what they love and fear and most want to do.  If they reach the other side without falling, it is skill but is also grace -- a benevolent God's decision to let these daredevils tread the high places where ordinary mortals have the good sense not to go.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life,  Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1993, 76.

There is much truth to this description of the preacher’s daring, because you never know what’s going to happen once the sermon begins.  There may be those in the congregation who will be offended, and others might decide that what’s been said isn’t worth the time given to it.  And yet, others just might find in the preacher’s very human words a word of challenge or hope from God.

    Preaching has always played a central role in the church’s life.  So whether it’s long or short; eloquent or halting, we expect to hear a word from God that will encourage, console, challenge, or even incite us to action.  We come to worship hoping that the God who spoke the universe into being will speak to our lives so that we might be transformed.  As a preacher, I come to the pulpit praying and hoping that my very human words will be transformed by the Spirit of God into this life-changing Word from God that the gathered congregation seeks to hear.    I know that once uttered my words are no longer under my control, and so I must trust them to the Spirit who speaks to hearts and minds.


    A sermon is more than a speech, and so it involves more than simply a speaker and an audience.  A sermon, even if it is, like most sermons, a monologue is a communal act that involves preacher, congregation, and God.  This means that a sermon cannot succeed if the congregation and God aren’t part of the process.  It doesn’t matter if the delivery is eloquent or not; what matters is that the people hear in the words of the preacher a word from God.

    When the Jewish exiles returned home from Babylon, they found their homeland in ruins.  Years after the first wave of exiles returned, a priest named Ezra arrived in Jerusalem to take up his duties, and all that he found was a small temple and city walls that were still in disrepair.   He found a people struggling with daily life, wondering if God even cared.  He quickly discovered that what they wanted to hear was a word from God that would break through their despair and give them hope to face tomorrow.  As he was seeking to minister to this people, someone found a scroll containing the Torah, and the people begged the priests to read it to them.  The job of reading that scroll fell to Ezra.


    In many ways Ezra functions here in our text as a new Moses.  He offers them a new word from God, but instead of speaking from the mountain of Sinai, he has a wooden platform constructed so the people can hear him read the newly discovered text.   He mounted that platform, accompanied by his fellow leaders, all those people whose names Ray had to read.  As he began to read from the scroll, the people stood there in rapt attention, listening to every word spoken, believing that this scroll contained something special, something that would change their lives.

    According to this account, Ezra began reading at 6:00 in the morning, and he didn't stop until noon.  It took a long time to read that scroll, but no one fell asleep or daydreamed; they just stood there glued to the words of the text.  He  could’ve been reading from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, Genesis or Numbers.  It didn’t matter because the people were so hungry for a word from God that nothing could distract them.

    As Ezra continued reading, the people began to prostrate themselves on the ground and lifting their hands toward heaven.  As the day wore on they began to worship, and the Levites taught them in small groups, interpreting the text so that the people could understand it and apply it.  You see, it’s not enough to read the text, you have to interpret it, so that it makes sense in one’s own context. 

    How do we hear a word from God?  I’ve always liked the way theologian Karl Barth spoke of a threefold Word of God.  He said that God's Word comes to us first in Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate.  From this Word comes the second word, the Word written, which we call Scripture.  Scripture is a word of God because it points us back to the incarnate Word.  And then there’s the Word of God proclaimed – what we call the sermon.  Barth believed that when the sermon is rooted in Scripture, and pointing us to Christ, then it becomes for us a Word of God. 

    Psalm 19 says that the Law has the power to revive the soul, making wise the simple, causing the heart to rejoice, and enlightening the eyes.  Because it endures forever, it’s more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey.   So powerful is this Word that on this particular day, a group of  people who hadn’t heard the Law read in generations found themselves listening intently and receptively.  As they listened, they discovered the disparity between who they were and who God wanted them to be.  And so, when they heard this word – with interpretation --they fell on their faces and began to weep.

 Although many of them heard a call to repentance in this proclamation, Ezra believed that there was another word to be heard.  He wanted them to know that the Torah offered them a word that would energize and liberate them for the future.  He wanted them to know that the Torah was more than simply a set of rules and regulations.  It was instead instruction on living together as a covenant community.  If this is true, then the Scriptures should be interpreted anew in every generation, so that the words contained in this book might truly speak to our present condition.

 Ezra understood why they were weeping, but instead of telling them to put on sack cloth and ashes, he told them to celebrate God’s gracious word with a feast of rich food and sweet drinks.  He also reminded them to share their bounty with those who came unprepared.  This serves as a reminder to us that our meals as Christ's body are communal and they are open to all who would come.  They may have felt the need to mourn, but one cannot mourn on a day that’s sacred to the Lord.  The only proper response is to rejoice that God has reached out to us in grace so as to transform our lives.    As we hear our own word from God, a word that liberates and transforms us, may we hear this promise of Ezra as a word to us:   "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

    It is this word that causes us to break forth in song, singing together:
    Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life,
    Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.

                             (Chalice Hymnal, 323).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
January 24, 2010
3rd Sunday after Epiphany

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