Epiphany 3

Epiphany 3

24 January 2016

St. Mary’s Hadlow


Nehemiah 8, Luke 4: 14-21


I gave my very first public sermon on the third Sunday of Epiphany in 2007, before I was ordained and I took the reading from Nehemiah 8 as my text for that day. I discussed my sermon with the vicar before delivering it and he said, “That’s a very brave choice.”

I don’t think he meant I was being brave, I think he meant it in the Paul Hollywood sense of you must be absolutely barking. But wouldn’t life be boring if we weren’t brave from time to time?

After the service someone kindly said to me that he had been wondering what on earth the Old Testament reading had all been about and that I had really opened it up for him and I thought: that is the purpose of preaching! To take what looks impenetrable and to make it meaningful, even if only for one person at a time. So in the interests of full disclosure I am going to share with you some of what I said on that day, albeit slightly edited to make sense in this time and place:

When I was at primary school, which I am amazed to say was nearly 40 years ago [that was changed from nearly 30 years ago by the way, which is a little scary], I went to a Church of England school.  As a good Church of England school we had a daily assembly with hymns and RE lessons, as you might expect.

However I also had a form teacher who had an interesting way of introducing us to the bible – if anyone was ever naughty (which of course I wasn’t) he would make us sit and read, how shall I put it, the less exciting parts of the bible  such as the lengthy genealogies containing what seemed like pages of unpronounceable names.  So for us, being made to read the bible was made, quite literally, into a punishment.  Now, you don’t have to be a psychologist to unpack the signals that was sending a class of children!   Let’s just say that the fact I ever went back to it and am speaking here now is truly evidence that God is still working miracles!

However, the reason my teacher chose to use the bible as a punishment in that way was doubtless because he perceived it to be an uninspiring read and, I suspect, that he was not alone in that view either then or now. Today’s reading from Nehemiah  illustrates a rather different view of scripture and one that should challenge us as Christians.

Unless one has thought much about Old Testament history it is easy to assume that following the exodus from Egypt into the Promised Land, that the Jewish nation simply continued in Israel until the time of Jesus.  In fact nothing could be further from the truth.  About 500 years before the birth of Christ, Israel was a weak and divided nation and the King of Babylon invaded Jerusalem, broke down its walls, destroyed the Temple and took the majority of the population away into captivity.

Only the poorest were left to inhabit the ruins of a once great city.

This situation continued for about 100 years until another King, Cyrus of Assyria, began to allow the captives to return to their homeland.  So, for all that time, the people who had been in captivity had been kept away from the holy places of Jerusalem and the people in Jerusalem had been defenceless and without a Temple.  Whilst both of these groups would have been aware of being culturally Jewish it is likely that they had little idea of the religious contents of what it meant to be Jewish as any form of worship or the reading of Scripture would have been extremely rare.

The book of Nehemiah, and the related book of Ezra, tells the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem by the returning exiles and today’s reading from Chapter 8 is the moving account of people’s reaction when they hear the scriptures read aloud for the first time in generations.  Let’s have a quick look at it.  Looking at v.3, first they listened attentively as the law of Moses was read and explained to them and in response to hearing the Word of God first they bowed down and worshiped with their faces on the ground (v. 6) and then they wept, (v.9) – in fact they wept so much that the priests had to tell them to stop!

Imagine the scene – hundreds it not thousands of people who have been starved of scripture for many years bowing down and crying as they hear the foundation of their faith proclaimed afresh to them for possibly the first time in living memory. Why were they crying? You may think that if you were made to stand outside for hours while the OT was read to you that you might cry too – however I think they had a different reason: On hearing the Word of God in the form of Scripture they were rediscovering their place in relation to God and in relation to each other and they were grieving for what they had been missing out on for so long.

So what does that mean for us as Christians in the 21st Century?  Well, perhaps we need to watch out for the danger of becoming culturally Christian whilst losing sight of the real contents of our faith.  Perhaps we too need to rediscover our place in relation to God and in relation to each other, just as desperately as the returned exiles in Jerusalem did.

So how do we rediscover our relationship with God?  That is a huge question but one possible answer is this: when thinking about the Bible, do you think about it as my old primary school teacher obviously did, as a dull book to be inflicted on children, or do you think of it as the people in Jerusalem did, as a cause of worship and tears of repentance?  If it is the former then could I suggest, with humility as a fellow sinner, that one way of getting to know God better is to cast off some of our modern cynicism and to re-engage with the Word of God by reading the bible regularly and prayerfully?   A really good way of doing this is to use daily reading notes, to find a bible in the year book which breaks it down into easy 20 minute sections or there are plenty of bible reading apps available too, which do the same thing. [I didn’t say that 9 year ago because there weren’t then.]

And, as Christians, we not only have the Word of God in the form of scripture but we also have the person of Jesus Christ whom we believe is the Word of God made flesh.  Therefore, to engage with the Word of God in a Christian context does not simply mean reading a book, it also means seeking a personal relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ.

However, our relationship with God can never be right whilst we are out of relationship with each other.   We cannot love God whilst hating each other and the act of Peace prior to taking communion is a clear example that piety towards God cannot co-exist with enmity for each other.   Today’s reading from Corinthians, which we didn’t have read today but which follows on from what I said last week, makes it clear that the Church is not simply an institution nor simply a place where we meet on Sunday’s but that it also serves a much higher function as the Body of Christ on Earth. The reading also illustrates, in very graphic terms, that we can only function effectively as a Body if we recognise that we all have different skills to offer and that we value our differences as being complementary rather than being divisive.  Church should be the place in which a diversity of gifts is brought together in a unity of purpose.  In the context of St Mary’s I think that we are actually very good at valuing each other’s different gifts but, of course, there is always more that we can do to grow together as a church family.

Of course the Church is much wider and more diverse than St. Mary’s (pause for gasp of disbelief) and it is unfortunate that both within the Anglican Communion and across denominations we have sometimes lost sight of the fact that, as St. Paul says:  “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

This has been the week of Prayer for Christian Unity and, as those who come to morning prayer with me will attest, one of my most constant prayers in every week is that the whole church should be united and I hope that broken communions will be healed during my lifetime.

All relationships require an investment of time and effort and this applies to our relationship with God as much as to our relationships with each other.  Whilst time often feels in short supply can I suggest that when talking about becoming and being the Body of Christ the time this takes represents the ultimate return on investment. Set just a little time aside each day to explore your relationship with God by opening up the bible, which unlike the people in Nehemiah’s day is freely available to us all, but also by spending some time in prayer asking God to increase in your life moment by moment. And you are, of course, always free to come and join me in morning prayer here or just come and sit in church and still yourself and let God speak to you in the silence.

Finally, as you can tell, I have been thinking about my time at primary school and being made to read the boring bits of the bible as a punishment.  Now that I know the bible a little better then I did then, I wish I could travel back in time and show all my 10 year old friends the epic battle scenes and even the more earthy bits from Song of Songs – it may help to redress the balance a bit.