Psalm 19 says that God’s word can be like fine gold and sweet honey—it can lead to worship of God and transformation of the heart. Unfortunately, too often scripture is not presented with authority- it is taken out of context or used as a weapon to silence or condemn people. For scripture to have authority, it should be seen through the lens of Jesus, the living Word of God, and also interpreted in the context of community.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Nehemiah 8:1-12; Luke 4:14-21
When I worked on a college campus, there were capital campaigns to build new buildings—building for teaching classes, buildings for athletics, new residence halls.
I saw firsthand how alumni and other supporters love to contribute to campaigns that build beautiful buildings, while at the same time if you needed more funds for programming that would provide resources to develop people and things like strengthening faith of students, that was a tougher sell.
Buildings almost always take precedence over people when it comes to fundraising. Maybe because they’re more visible, easier to see your donations at work, more concrete—pun intended.
So with this is mind, I’m not surprised that the most well-known story in the book of Nehemiah a project that Nehemiah organized to rebuild the walls of the city of Jersusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire under king Nebuchadnezzar before taking the Israelites into exile.
And now, after returning from exile, Nehemiah oversees the rebuilding of the walls of his beloved city, something that everyone was excited about.
Now that’s certainly a noteworthy and inspiring story, to rebuild those walls. It brings to my mind an Amish barn-raising, where the Amish community comes together to rebuild a barn that has been destroyed by a fire or a tornado.
Have you ever witnessed one of those barn-raisings? It can bring chills up and down your spine. And I’m sure that was the kind of reaction in Jerusalem as they saw their city’s walls being rebuilt from the ground up.
But there are other stories in the book of Nehemiah that are inspiring as well. Like the one we heard today, where we have this scene of people gathered by the water gate.
Now just to clarify, that’s not Watergate the infamous hotel here in DC, but the water gate, i.e. the gate which led to where people went to draw the water for their daily needs.
And what happened y the water gate when the scroll with the Law of Moses was unrolled by Ezra was in my estimation at least as inspiring and important as Nehemiah’s wall building project.
Actually we have two inspiring Bible-reading, scroll-unrolling scenes in our scriptures today— this one from Nehemiah, as well as the one we are probably more familiar with, Jesus unrolling the scroll from the book of Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth.
The people’s response to Jesus’ unrolling and reading the scroll is much different than Ezra’s, so let’s look at them a bit.
In Jesus’ case, it says that when Jesus finished reading from the scroll, everyone’s eyes were fixed on him. It’s like they were mesmerized, in awe at what they just heard. The message and the messenger impacted them in way that left them glued to their seats.
Then Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And then there’s another reaction, not a very favorable one, which we’ll look at next week.
Now let’s look a little more at the crowd’s response by the water gate when Ezra unrolled the scroll and read from the book of the law of Moses, which actually included the first five books of our Bible, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch.
I want to quote something I read on a website this week that I think captures that scene well. It’s from a pastor named Debie Thomas on a blog called Journey with Jesus. Thomas says:
“It’s an astonishing image of a communal Bible reading experience…”
Something powerful and transformative happens when Ezra opens the book. People consent to listen to God’s word with their whole hearts, to receive what’s read in a spirit of openness and vulnerability, and to express their comprehension in acts of celebration and sharing.”
This response brings to mind the words we heard from Psalm 19, where David says that God’s Word is more desirable than the finest gold, and even sweeter than honey that comes right out of the honeycomb.
He says that it’s so valuable and powerful that it can revive a weary soul, it can enlighten tired eyes, and bring rejoicing to a despairing heart.
And Psalm 19 is just a foreshadowing of what’s to come later on in the Psalms- Psalm 119 is the longest of all the Psalms, and it’s all about the benefits and the joy that meditating on God’s word brings to a person’s life.
The song we sang “Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” is buried in the middle of Psalm 119 in verse 105, and could sum up the entire psalm.
In both the reading of scripture by Ezra in the OT and Jesus in the NT, we see clear examples of God’s word being presented with authority, in a way that stirs the minds and penetrates to the hearts of the listeners.
Wouldn’t it be great if the reading and preaching from the Bible was always presented with such authority, and then always had the powerful effect it had on the Israelites at the water gate in Jerusalem and the parishoners in the pews of the synagogue in Nazareth?
But unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world, or a perfect Church, and unfortunately the Bible has not been always presented or interpreted with authority, integrity and faithfulness to its meaning,
Rich Villodas, author of The Deeply Formed Life that a group of us studied during Lent last year, said this: Just because someone preaches from the word of God, doesn’t mean that the word is from God.
Sometimes the Bible has been overspiritualized, or sanitized, or in our culture it’s been Americanized to fit comfortably into a church that has bought into idols like materialism and Nationalism, or militarism, or compromising Jesus’ teachings in order to gain political power.
For example, at a recent political rally, a prominent spokesperson who has a lot of Christian supporters said that Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking have gotten the party nowhere.
He said “we’ve turned the other cheek and I understand the biblical reference, but it’s gotten us nothing.” He said it’s time to play hardball.
All these distortions of the Bible has left many people disillusioned, leaving a bitter taste in their mouth instead of the sweetness of honeycomb.
In recent years, I have seen and heard about so many people who maybe used to identify as evangelicals, but who have left the church and now are known as exvangelicals,
Maybe because they saw the Bible being used as a weapon, sucking the compassion out of people and injecting them with the desire to condemn others.
Or maybe because they saw a huge disconnect between what church people preach and how they live; they saw them as hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach.
Or maybe the Bible leaves a bad taste in their mouths because it has been misinterpreted and misused to justify things like silencing women, or condemning people to hell who don’t believe and act a particular way, or used to justify a lack of compassion for immigrants or those in the LGBTQ community.
Maybe some of us here can identify with this disillusionment with the Bible, and keep an arm’s length away from it as a result.
So the question is, How can the Word of God become sweet like honey again to us?
How can we become people who unroll the scroll with anticipation and excitement, expecting to hear God speak to us in a way that transforms us from the inside out, and powerfully guides our life together as the church gathered and inspire us as the church scattered to be a prophetic witness to the world around us?
I believe that our Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition can be helpful to us in developing a healthy and accurate relationship with the Bible. I want to leave us with two principles from our faith tradition that I believe are keys to our understanding of the Bible.
First and foremost is our focus on Jesus as the center of our faith.
Focusing on Jesus means looking to his teachings and his example as the model for how we are to live our lives. It also means reading the whole Bible with Jesus in mind. through the lens of Jesus Christ. People in academia call this a Christocentric hermeneutic,
One way to describe this is to say in a Christ-centered approach, we read the Bible “backwards”—we look backwards to read the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus, and read the New Testament as pointing back to Jesus.
Reading the Bible with Jesus as our focus also means that we read it not just for information, but for transformation. Our goal in approaching scripture should always be growing in our love for God and our love for others, as Jesus said was the sum of all of the commandments.
Another way of seeing the Bible through the lens of Jesus is to look for the look for the love of God and the beauty of Jesus reflected in its pages.
You see, I believe that what ultimately makes the Word of God authoritative and inspired is when we see it through the lens of Jesus,
Jesus who is the Word, capital W, made flesh, as the Gospel of John so beautifully tells us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
So the first key is Jesus. And the second one I want to mention is Community. The Anabaptists believed in what’s known as the hermeneutical community.
Basically this means that we read the Bible as a community, together, and that everyone, not just the pastors and other leaders, is involved in interpreting and applying the scriptures to how we live out our faith in our particular context.
Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, I believe that God is still speaking to the Church, and we need to be open to new ways of understanding what the scriptures mean to us, in a spirit of willingness and humility.
Everyone has a voice, and in a community, we always need to test what we hear God saying to us in the community for confirmation. And everyone is involved in holding each other accountable and encouraging each other in the faith.
This helps prevent what we see in some Christian circles and churches where a self-appointed leader claims to “hear the word of God” and then tells everyone under them what they are supposed to believe and how they are supposed to live.
This can lead to manipulation, and abuse, and leading the flock astray.
Now I believe in authority given to pastors and other leaders, but that always has to be in the context of a community that the leaders submit themselves to, just like everyone else.
My hope and prayer for Daniels Run Peace Church is that we will be a people of the Word—the written word in the scriptures and the living Word embodied in Jesus.
We are blessed to have a wonderful building built out of brick and mortar, and even with solar panels on the roof. But let’s always remember that the church is not the building, but the people who worship in it
people who are rooted in Jesus, people who gather to hear and reflect on the scriptures together in community,
people who then scatter to live out our faith and be bearers of the good news of Jesus to those we live with, work with, shop with, rub shoulders with.
So let’s continue to unroll the scroll with anticipation and expectation, open to how it leads us to be faithful to the life that God has called us to, as individuals and as a church community. AMEN.