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Series: Epiphany

Category: 2019 Sermons

Passage: Nehemiah 8:1-10

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

As a Christian Education director at both Mt tam UM and Westminster, one of my most cherished Sundays was handing out bibles to children in 3rd grade. Every year on Christ Ed Sunday, if you were in 3rd grade your name, was written inside the bibles cover and each child was called by name and asked to walk from the pew so they could receive their new bible.

There would stand 8-10 children, holding their new bibles, looking out into the congregation of roughly 250 people and  I would ask for a show of hands; how many remembered receiving their first bible. So many hands would go up. Then I would ask how many of them still had that same bible. And most of those same hands would stay up. I was always a little amazed by that. Imaging all the times in a persona life they've moved or cleaned or decluttered, only to make that decision to keep that old book.

While those hands were up, and the children were looking out on all those hands, I would say some thing like… 

Look at all those hands. This book and all the stories, all the teachings, the words in it will stay with you for a lifetime. You can read it, look at it’s pictures, ask questions about it, imagine being in it, live inside the lives of all those people, like Jonah and David, Rachel and Queen Esther, Mary and Joseph. You imagine being Jesus, or imagine that Jesus is talking to you, because he is. His words, his life is there for you to grow old with because He will always be there. And hopefully so will your Bible.

Now if I had asked those same set of hands that went up how many of them actually open the pages and read their Bibles daily, I’m guessing many of those same hands would go down.

The Bible is a cherished possession, and we don’t throw them away, but its a possession that turns into a gift when read, a gift that comes alive when opened and heard with the heart. 


The word lives at the center of our reformed tradition. 

For those who missed the weekly email it’s worth repeating-

The reformers placed their primary focus on the “the Word.” In Protestant churches, you'll often find the pulpit front, center and elevated, as we have here at St Luke…We even go so far as to have one of the largest and loveliest Bibles I’ve ever seen, that sits on our pulpit. The importance on the written word came at the same time as the printing press. Gone was the stained glass windows in order to allow more light for reading. 

Our Protestant tradition has slogans, one of which is; sola scriptura (Lat. “Scripture alone”). indicating that the church’s authority is only the Holy Scriptures and not ecclesiastical traditions or human opinions. This was called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, or the “Scripture principle.”

So what do we do with the word…other than prominently display it in our sanctuaries. 

Or maybe the better question is what would God and Jesus have us do with the written word… 

This morning’s scripture gives us two accounts of the written word being read-

The first scene is from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, and it describes a beautiful and hard won moment in Israel’s history.  Some quick backstory:  Nehemiah is a minor figure in the King of persia’s court.  When Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem is a broken, fire-razed wreck, he begs the king to let him return to his homeland and rebuild the city of his ancestors.  The obstacles to the rebuilding are fierce and numerous, but Nehemiah persists, and finally succeeds in restoring Jerusalem’s wall and gates.  He then invites his people back from exile, and asks them to gather in the square before the Water Gate for an assembly. 

Our lectionary reading picks up there, at the moment when the prophet Ezra “opens the book in the sight of all people,” and reads from the law of Moses “from early morning until midday.” He reads until the assembly of men and women gathered in the square open their ears, understand, stand up, raise their hands, worship “with their faces to the ground,” say, “Amen, Amen,” weep as they hear the words God has for them, and then return to their homes to “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared,” because “the joy of the Lord is their strength.”[1]

When the word reaches people who were in exile, displaced, suffering oppression in all its forms, the word reaches ears that are hungry to hear in new ways….when the word reaches those who were blinded by hunger, or injustices, they are hungry to see in new ways… 

How hungry are we to see and hear in a completely new way? Desire is born in struggle, hope is born in struggle…if you re struggling this morning, the good news is that this book we call the gospel, is especially good news for you


The second scene takes place centuries later, in the backwater town of Nazareth.  It’s a Sabbath day soon after Jesus’s baptism and subsequent temptation in the wilderness.  “Filled with the power of the Spirit,” Jesus returns to his hometown, enters the synagogue he has likely attended since boyhood, and stands up (as is the custom) to read from the Prophets.  He asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, unrolls it, finds the passage he wants, and reads aloud.  By the time he’s finished reading (the Gospel of Luke tells us), every eye in the synagogue is fixed on him. 

Luke offers us this reading scene as the inaugural act of Jesus’s ministry.  An act in which he proclaims his identity, his purpose, and his vocation.  Jesus chooses to reveal the meaning of his life and work through the beloved and well-worn words of Scripture.  Words his audience has heard a thousand times.  Words no doubt rich with communal memory and meaning, but also words in danger of losing their power through over-familiarity. It’s not as if the Son of God is incapable of penning a new and shiny mission statement; he is the Incarnate Word himself.  But he doesn’t improvise; he opens the book and makes the old words of the tradition his own: “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  As if to say: the Word lives, here and now.  It is organic, it breathes, it moves in fresh and revolutionary ways.  The Word of God is neither dull nor dead.  It is alive.[2]

Again I say, for those who are walking in darkness, this is the best news of all. The word is alive, and it comes to fulfill, not just as a self-improvement tool, not as a new year resolution, though it is surely both of those as well, as a life changer. As a life-altering, life-changing world….How do we affirm the gift of the word in that way? I would begin with prayer, prayers for eyes to see, and ears to hear…for this day…This is the day…

Presbyterians are known for they intellectual capacity to study the word. Seminary gave me some of the brightest, smartest Old and new testament professors I could hope for. One from Switzerland the other from Germany. Both always working outside of teaching on new evidence, always engaged with the word and it’s excavation. 

But for the rest of us lay readers, after we've prayed for open hearts, open minds, eyes to see and hear so we might discover anew….what then?….Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's word. It does not treat scripture as texts to be studied, but as the living word.

In Bible study, where we both study scripture and hear it as the living word… someone asked a very good question. Jesus stood up to read the scripture, but what was his place, how did they worship back then that he could just stand without anyone yet knowing who he was…..I didn’t know the answer, but what I found made an impression.

People assembled, they gathered, and the read together, with no formality the way we have today. If someone in the group wanted to read, they read, and they could reflect out loud and discuss it as a community… When we share our wisdom, our insights that are born from our struggles, we discover with new eyes and new ears though the universal experience.

We lose our way in the life, in deeply personal ways, each one of us, with circumstances unique. One is sick, another the spouse or parent of one who is suffering form an illness, some with financial resources, others with next to nothing. One with Parkinson's, another cancer, one with depression, another missing their mom or a friend who has died…. 

those are personal circumstances….the universal experience lives in the heart, in sadness, in tears, in longing. We connect there, we connect in our search for shalom, for peace…we connect universally in the longing for the return of joy, of laughter of renewed affirmation of love…. 

And today, we are reminded that we live in the words of this book through the love of a God who gives us the word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

If you’re still not sure how to approach this book, begin with the gospels, and the life of Jesus Christ, who is the word made flesh. To see as he sees, to hear a he hears, to love as he loves, is a Life changer, a game changer and something to book. We say book me a reservation, book me a car, book me a hotel… 

Book me Jesus. 

Psalm 119

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet

    and a light unto my path…..

I am severely afflicted;

    give me life, O Lord, according to your word.

Your decrees are my heritage forever;

    they are the joy of my heart.

I incline my heart to perform your statutes

    forever, to the end. 

Though our reputation as presbyterians is one of the head, I suggest we listen and see with our hearts…. 

Jesus lives there. The word will speak to you there…you cannot be wrong…only forgiven. You cannot be misguided, only redirected,

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path…