Sermon notes 01-23-22 Disturbing, Joyful, Offending, Life-giving Words Pastor David King
Nehemiah 8:1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose…. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also … the Levites helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (ESV)
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Luke 4:14-21 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. 16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (ESV)
Our three passages of Scripture this morning—one from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, one from Psalm 19 and one from Luke’s Gospel—have in common that they are all scriptures about Scripture. All three of these passages from God’s word are in some way telling a story about God’s word. Nehemiah tells the story of Ezra the priest reading from the Book of the Law of Moses—that’s Scripture—to the people assembled in the square in Jerusalem; Luke tells the story of Jesus reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah—that’s also Scripture—to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth; and the psalm writer David praises the virtues of the law, precepts, rules and commandments of the Lord that are of course revealed in Scripture.
We find in these passages of Scriptures examples of how to read Scripture publicly. We have the example of Ezra who reads from a wooden platform standing above the people, facing the square before the Water Gate. Then we have the example of Jesus who, according to Luke, also stands up in the synagogue to read, presumably facing the people who are listening to him as he reads. But what I want us to think about primarily this morning is not so much whether we should stand or sit or which way we should face when we read Scripture; I want us to think not about how we are to read Scripture, but more importantly, why. The answer to the “why” question may seem obvious, but I think sometimes we need to be reminded of what Scripture actually is; and to remember God’s intention in arranging for us to have it.
Our three readings this morning help to remind us of what we believe about Scripture, so as we think about these passages, I want to emphasize three main points about Scripture: First I want to talk about what it means that Scripture is authoritative; then I want to acknowledge the disturbing and offensive aspect of Scripture; and finally, I want to talk about the purpose of Scripture, God’s intended outcome in providing and preserving it for us.
Regarding the authority of Scripture, there are two questions we should ask. One is, what is it that makes Scripture authoritative, and the other is, what does it mean for us as followers of Jesus, and as a church, that Scripture is authoritative?
It should be fairly obvious that what makes Scripture authoritative is that it is God’s word. I say it should be fairly obvious, but it does take faith to believe this. Our faith, our belief, is that the Bible is the Word of God, written by human beings under the inspiration and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
That is not to say that God dictated the Bible word for word for humans to put into writing, but our belief is that God inspired the hearts and minds of humans over the course of many centuries to record and compile the law, the prophetic teachings and the writings which comprise the Old Testament, and eventually the Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament; and moreover, God arranged and provided for this compilation of his written word to be preserved for us to have as a guide for living as God’s people.
This claim that God would use human beings to put together a book of his words seems far-fetched to many, yet we see over and over again in the Bible itself that God accomplishes his plans and purposes through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit.
The important point about all of this is that the authority of Scripture comes from the fact that it is God’s word. God is the ultimate authority behind the authority of Scripture.
To emphasize this, I want to read again some of the words of Psalm 19: The law of the Lord is perfect … the testimony of the Lord is sure …the precepts of the Lord are right … the commandment of the Lord is pure … the rules of the Lord are true. Notice that all of this is from the Lord. The Bible contains the law, testimony, precepts, commandments and rules made not by humans; they are from the Lord. The Lord our God is the ultimate authority who gives Scripture its authority.
The second question I said we should ask about the authority of Scripture is, what does it mean for us as followers of Jesus, and for the church, that Scripture is authoritative? This would again seem rather obvious. If Scripture is authoritative for the people of God, we, the people of God, should submit to its authority. But this obvious truth is, just as obviously, easier said than done.
I will come back to that in a moment, but the main point I want to make here is that we are desperately dependent on the authority of Scripture for our very identity as followers of Jesus and for our very existence as a church. This is a truth that even leaders in the church sometimes fail to fully realize.
Kim and I were in a meeting a few years ago that included both clergy and laypersons who were there to discuss how the church should address differences in the interpretation of Scripture that threaten the unity of the church. One clergyperson spoke up and said, in so many words, that we should not get caught up with interpreting Scripture, but we should rather “just be like Jesus.”
What I wish I had asked him is, how do you know what it looks like or what it means, to be like Jesus? Where do you get your understanding of what Jesus is like, without interpreting Scripture?
The problem with having a dismissive attitude toward Scripture and its interpretation while presuming to promote the example and teachings of Jesus is that we don’t know anything about the example and the teachings of Jesus apart from Scripture and its interpretation.
Think about it: no one who has ever lived apart from those who were with Jesus when he was living on earth, and perhaps those who might have heard directly from those persons, would know anything about Jesus if it were not recorded in Scripture.
The reality is, everything we really know about God and Jesus, about what is expected of Christ’s followers, about holiness, about the church, about Christian doctrine, and about salvation—is only through what is recorded in Scripture.
I want to read to you a statement that has been in our Methodist Book of Discipline since the very early days of Methodism; since the year 1808 to be exact: The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. Some of that language is a bit archaic, but it says essentially that everything we need to know about God’s plan for the salvation of humanity is contained in the Bible, and there is nothing outside of the Bible in regard to our salvation that is necessary for us to know. In other words, the Bible says it all.
Now, we know of course that there is no shortage of resources outside of the Bible on the subjects of salvation and God and Jesus and the church and holiness and Christian doctrine and discipleship—there have been countless books and devotions and commentaries and studies written on those subjects—but all of those resources are derived from Scripture; they are credible only if Scripture verifies them; they are worth reading or studying only if they can be proven to be in accord with Scripture.
Without Scripture there is simply no foundation for our faith, no basis for even having a church, no understanding of God’s plans and purposes for humanity, no authoritative guide for living a Christian life.
So, the answer to the question of what it means to us that Scripture is authoritative is, in a word, everything. It means everything, because without Scripture, we have nothing on which to base our faith.
Next, I said I want to acknowledge the disturbing and offensive nature of Scripture. I think we all wish that whenever we read the Bible or heard the Word of God, we would find it to be always affirming and uplifting, like a comforting pat on the back. We do get that when we read the Bible … sometimes … but if we are honest with ourselves, we know that Scripture often confronts us, convicts us, offends us, disturbs us. It calls us to change our behavior, change our views; it requires us to take action when we would rather not get involved.
The Bible disturbs and offends us when it attacks our ways of thinking, pushes us out of our complacency, confronts us with the need to change, challenges us to do and to be better. We may wish for never-failing comfort and affirmation from the Scriptures, but friends, if we are never offended or disturbed by the Bible, there is quite frankly a disconnect somewhere. We are either not reading it, or we are not connecting it with our own life, our own values, our own attitudes and behaviors, our own political positions.
I want to speak briefly but specifically about that last point, our political positions. In these times of extreme political polarization, it is important for all of us, whatever our political leanings or affiliation, to acknowledge that the Bible cannot be categorized as exclusively liberal or exclusively conservative. If we strongly identity with our choice of political party and we embrace all of the positions that our political party upholds, we will find in the Bible reason to be disturbed or offended about our positions.
A few years ago, Kim and I had the opportunity to hear Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, preach a sermon in his church addressing this subject.
Keller makes the case that neither side in our nation’s two-party system can claim to be completely aligned with the Bible.
Keller pointed out that there are social values in the Bible, such as taking care of the poor and working for racial justice and welcoming the stranger and the foreigner and the refugee, that we would regard in our time as liberal values.
But there are moral values in the Bible such as the emphasis on personal holiness and the understanding that sex is only for marriage between one man and one woman, that we would regard in our time as conservative values.
While we might wish for the Bible and the church to be conformed to our political worldview, what we should be seeking instead is for our political worldview and the church to be conformed to the Bible.
Speaking of politics, it’s interesting that Nehemiah writes with the backdrop of building a wall, something that has recently been a political issue in our nation. When the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, one of the last things to be rebuilt was the protective wall surrounding the city. The book of Nehemiah tells how Nehemiah restored the wall under very difficult circumstances and in spite of great opposition. But in the passage we heard this morning, the people realized upon completion of the wall that their ultimate security did not come from having a brick and mortar barrier surrounding the city. Nehemiah describes the people responding to the word by lifting up their hands, bowing their heads and worshiping the Lord with their faces to the ground. And Nehemiah adds something else about the response of the people: he says they wept. “For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” Nehemiah doesn’t tell us why the people wept, but it is quite clear. The people were, to say the least, disturbed by what they heard. The people wept because they realized upon hearing the words of the book of the Law that they had not kept the Law; that they and their ancestors had in fact violated their covenant relationship with God and fallen out of relationship with God as a result.
But the story does not end there, and this brings me to the last point, God’s intended outcome for Scripture. Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor instructed the people not to weep or mourn. Sorrow for their sin was a positive response by the people, a step in the right direction, but the ultimate purpose of the teaching was not sorrow, but joy at the opportunity for a renewed relationship with God.
Nehemiah says to the people, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Though weeping might be an appropriate initial response to conviction of sin, the ultimate response should be joy in the Lord.
Friends, I invite you to hear again the words of Jesus as he reads the prophesy about himself from the scroll of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
God sent Jesus and anointed him to proclaim good news. That is what the word Gospel means: good news. Christ tells us elsewhere in Scripture that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. He said he came so that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete.
Brothers and sisters, God’s authoritative word may disturb us and offend us and even bring us to tears because of what it reveals about our failure to follow God’s design for our lives. But we are not meant to wallow in misery. That is not the intended outcome. That is not God’s ultimate purpose, and that is not our ultimate response. Our ultimate response to the teachings of Scripture should be joy in the Lord.
Friends, there is no greater joy on earth than living into God’s plans and purposes for our lives and fully becoming who God created us to be … and that happens only when we submit to the authority and the teachings of Scripture.
God provided Scripture for us, to reveal his design and intention for our lives and his plan for our redemption and our salvation. The words of Scripture are transformative, life-giving words. Applying them to our lives results in fulfillment and fulness of joy.
May Scripture be your authority, may the joy of the Lord be your strength, and may your joy be complete.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.