Lesson: Nehemiah 8:2-10
One of my favorite comedians is named Kathleen Madigan. She has this great line. “I’m catholic, we don’t read the Bible, we pay priests to read it for us. The guy has all week off and no wife so he can show up with a 45 minute book report.”
Evidently it’s not just the Romans who are not reading their Bibles. Barna did a poll and here is what they found. 12 percent of adults in America believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. 50 percent of graduating high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was first preached by Billy Graham and according to 82 percent of Americans, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a verse in the Bible. Gratefully that percentage dropped when they surveyed people who self identified as born again believers. It dropped to 81 percent!
This is kind of comical but it gets sober real fast when we realize what this kind of biblical illiteracy does to an individual, to a family and to our society. It may sound simplistic but how many of our nation’s ills would disappear overnight if people kept the 10 Commandments and followed Jesus’ Golden Rule? But a Pew survey discovered that while 80 percent of American could tell you all the ingredients in a Big Mac but less than 60 percent knew that “thou shalt not kill” was one of the commandments.
The writer who cited the Barna findings said this. “We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation can be directly traced to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches. This generation must get deadly serious about the problem of biblical illiteracy, or a frighteningly large number of Americans–Christians included–will go on thinking that Sodom and Gomorrah lived happily ever after.”
Our Old Testament reading paints a wonderful picture of the power of God’s Word with His people and it can be very instructive for us on how to become “deadly serious” about biblical illiteracy and its consequences. But before we look at the details let me give you some background to this story.
The year is about 445 BC. The Jewish people have been in exile for about 70 years, which is nearly two generations. They have returned to Jerusalem and found the land to be in literal and spiritual ruin. Nehemiah goes about rebuilding the walls while Ezra the priest seeks to rebuild the people spiritually.
What they found in their return was that those who had been left behind compromised and strayed from God’s commandments. They intermarried and took on the idols of the pagans that they married. One of my seminary professors told of doing a dig in the Holy Land of a Jewish town after the conquests of Joshua. He said in every home he found an idol buried beneath the floor. Outwardly they were the people of God but inwardly they held on to their idols as a plan B. It is this kind of compromise and syncretism that Ezra seeks to eradicate and so he declares God’s Word to them.
Do we have compromise and syncretism today? You had better believe it and it comes in many forms.
In the early 80’s the church that I was serving wanted to have a Christian school so I had to go to Texas to be trained in the curriculum. This particular group was extremely fundamentalist and so steeped in patriotism that they could not say “God” without saying “country.” And everything, and I mean everything, was red, white and blue. You would have thought that John Wayne was the third person of the Trinity.
While it is a good thing for Christians to be patriotic we must avoid the kind of syncretism that insinuates that God is on our side and so our nation can do no wrong. When Abraham Lincoln was asked if God was on the side of the North he said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
The Church needs to be free enough of nationalism that it can speak prophetically to the nation and call it into account. We must see the Body of Christ as being comprised of people from all the nations of the earth and our loyalty to Jesus and to His Body must be first and foremost. We are citizens of heaven before we are citizens of our respective countries.
After about a week of “God and country” by the bucket loads I got rebuffed when I asked them if they thought the Jesus also loved Canadians. We must rid ourselves of syncretism.
We also suffer the syncretism when we mix the culture with the Church. We are horrified with the idea that people in Old Testament times would sacrifice their children to Molech but I saw very little response when the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Boston called abortion “a blessing.” Consider how many denominations are accepting a redefinition of marriage that is not only contrary to Scripture and Holy Tradition but to millions of years of human experience….that is until our enlightened generation came along.
Syncretism exits in the Church in the form of the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel.” It’s not an accident that this false gospel exploded in the 1980’s during what was called “the decade of greed.
I saw a video of two of these health and wealth guys talking and one of them was telling a story of how God started speaking to him when he was flying home from a meeting in his private jet and so he walked up and down the aisle talking back and forth with God. The other guy stopped him and looked into the camera and told the audience that is why these TV preachers need their private jets because you can’t walk and talk to God when you fly commercial. We must rid ourselves of syncretism.
Do we still have idols today? Yes we do and they also come in many forms. Work, money, sex, sports, these can all draw us away from loving God with all of our heart and souls and mind. We must rid ourselves of our buried idols.
How do we do it? How do we rid ourselves of syncretism? Ezra knew how. It is by being steeped in the Word of God so that what he did. He gathered the people and read to them the Scriptures. He read it to them by the volumes and then he sent out priests to explain the Scriptures that they just heard. The people’s initial response was conviction that they had strayed from God’s Word so they repented. But this quickly led to celebration and renewed strength in their relationship with God.
Isn’t that a fascinating pattern? God’s Word is read aloud (point to lectern), it is explained (point to pulpit), the people repent (point to kneeler), and then they celebrate and are renewed (point to altar). There is something vaguely familiar with that pattern. I need to give it more thought.
But let’s move on. There are several things to be learned from this story. First note that Ezra read to them from early in the morning until midday. And the Scripture says that the people were attentive to the book of the law. Early morning until midday is a lot of reading of Scripture and to be attentive that long meant that they disciplined themselves to hear God’s Word. They gave themselves to God’s Word.
What do we do today? We take one verse a day like a multivitamin or we use it like some kind of magic book. We ask God to show us what kind of car to buy and then we randomly open the Bible and our finger lands on the verse, “and the disciples were all in one accord” and we’re off the Honda dealership.
But the Word of God is more than a multivitamin and it certainly is not a magic book. It is God’s self- revelation and to know it we must give ourselves to it. Just as Ezra read to them for hours so we must dedicate hours to study it because we need to replace the narrative of the culture with God’s narrative and rid ourselves of syncretism. The Jews believe that reading, studying and even debating the Scripture is itself an act of worship and if Christians could but capture that perspective for ourselves we would go a long way in defeating biblical illiteracy at least in the Church.
Second we notice that the reading of Scripture led to worship. “Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
Again the Word of God is God’s self-revelation and so we go to Scripture first and foremost to find God. Sadly even the Church gives us false narratives about God. How many of us growing up were given the impression that we better be good or God won’t love us so we go through the day thinking “Now He loves me, now He doesn’t?”
So we go to Scripture to learn the true narratives about God and this is where we discover the God who loves us so much that He sent His only begotten Son not to condemn us but to save us. And when we truly see who God is, the natural response is to praise and worship Him.
If you study the Bible to prove your theology correct, or to straighten out other people, or to comfort yourself with escapist theories like the “rapture,” it does not lead to worship, it leads to self righteousness. But if you study the Bible to see the face of God then it will not only lead you to worship but it will transform your life. One of the most tenderhearted people in our parish is a man who has read through the entire Bible 17 times. It is not a coincidence that his heart is so sensitive to God and he is so biblically literate. The latter causes the former.
We have a wonderful advantage as Christians that Ezra did not have. When my son was young I loved reading with him the “Where’s Waldo?” books. We spent hours trying to find that little guy in the pictures. I think of that when I read the Old Testament because it invites us to play a holy version of “Where’s Waldo” in that we are to look for Jesus as we read the text. The early Church Fathers were masters at finding Jesus in the Old Testament and some times they even found Him when He was not there. But sadly too many in the Church today think that the Old Testament is irrelevant and so they don’t read it. But remember that after Jesus was resurrected He spoke with some disciples and revealed Himself to them in the Scriptures and at that point the only Scriptures that they had were the Old Testament. So the Old Testament is also His story. A truism they gave us in seminary was “The New is in the Old concealed and the Old is in the New revealed.” We must seek Jesus as we read the Old and we will find Him. And as we find the one true God He will purge us of our syncretism.
The third thing we see happen as a result of God’s Word being read, is that the people repent and then moved to celebration. “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘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.”
Just as worship is a natural outcome of discovering who God is, so is repentance. The closer we get to Him the more we see His holiness and the more we are aware that we are not. But what also leads us to repentance is His goodness, the graciousness of His call to us. When we realize the extent of His mercy and love, when He tells us that nothing can separate us from Him, it breaks our hearts that we have wasted so much time on dumb idols that give us none of this. Hearing God’s Word helps us come to ourselves, like the prodigal son who found himself slopping hogs and wondered if he had lost his mind. Repentance is deciding to leave the pigs behind and come home and instead of a scolding the Father throws his arms around us and welcomes us home.
After the prodigal repents and comes home, what was next? The Father throws a celebration. That is God’s way and so Ezra tells them to break out the food and wine, to share with those in need, and be renewed with joy.
So let’s do what our spiritual ancestors did and give ourselves to the reading of God’s Word. Let’s seek God in His Word and as we discover Him live lives that are filled with worship, repentance and celebration. Let’s find in Him the joy that is our strength.
Forgive me but I do need to give one spoiler alert. If it has been awhile since you have been in the Book, I need to warn you that Sodom and Gomorrah did not live happily ever after. Amen.