Tuesday, January 16, 2007

3 Ephiphany, Year C: Nehemiah 8:1-10

The appointed lesson for this coming Sunday, the third Sunday of Epiphany, Year C, is Nehemiah 8:1-10. The passage recounts Ezra's reading and teaching the Torah, renewing the covenant in postexilic Judah.

Please do not be put off by the topic of Law / Torah, and, certainly, please do not mourn and weep as Ezra's audience did when confronted with the torah! This passage is not about legalism and rigidity. It is about finding life, finding true joy. It would make for a great sermon or homily this Sunday.

Do consider fashioning your sermon around Nehemiah 8. There is so much misunderstanding about applying God's torah, about biblical authority, and about related themes these days, we need the insights of this passage!

A few things to notice. First, God's teaching is not being forced or shoved on folks. The people have requested Ezra to bring Moses' books before them (v. 1). God's people naturally long for God's teaching, because it restores our souls and nurtures our relationship with God (cf. Pss 19:7-9; 119:72).

To his credit, Ezra makes God's word in Scripture easily available to everyone who longs for it. He reads it to the people outside the temple area, in an open public area where even ritually defiled folks could be present (8:1). Men, women, and children are all included (8:2).

Hearing the reading, the people sense their distance from God and weep, but Ezra will have none of this type of reaction (8:9). This is a time of new beginnings, a time of renewed intimacy with God. God's torah is a wedding present. It allows for a tangible commitment to God and for growth in the relationship. The torah gives form and structure to the love of God.

The torah's meaning is not simplistic, black and white, and self-evident. Understanding Scripture requires translation, interpretation, and pause for reflection. Do not allow the people in the pews to miss how the Levites help the people understand the law (8:7-8). The church today is struggling against divisions that threaten to tear us apart. We greatly need to understand that Interpretation and New Learning always accompany the understanding of Scripture (בין ; cf. Ps 119:27). Understanding and insight (שׂכל--8:8) are not automatic. Working hard on Scripture's meaning is in no way an act of unfaith or a questioning of Scripture's authority.

Comments Welcome. Expostion of Nehemiah 8 to be continued; stay tuned...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm definitely preaching on Nehemiah this Sunday.

It's interesting to note that the RCL dropped the verses with the long list of names - verses 4 and 7. Maybe this is a good thing, b/c some people might check out when they hear the long list of names. But, I think it's sad, especially b/c it cuts out verse 7!

Thanks for your lectionary commentaries! They are helpful!


Tue Jan 16, 01:49:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Please do post excerpts or notes from the sermon as it comes together! Thanks, ---SLC

Tue Jan 16, 02:04:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the reading of the Torah from Nehemiah 8 is leading into the a renewal of the covenant between God and the Israelites in chapter 9. Ezra's prayer starting in 9:6 seems to then recount the acts of God in history that they would have likely reviewed in the reading of the Torah. I'm thinking of taking my sermon down this road about covenant renewal and God acting in history. I'm also very struck by the line in 8:8 of "with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." I don't know, this text has a lot in it!


Thu Jan 18, 01:58:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Yes, indeed. By 9:38 the covenant gets renewed and sealed. It's nice how this follows the recital of God's mighty acts. As in Levenson, the Torah is the goal of the history with God. And yes, how instructive that the Word is read and interpreted in the context of community and real efforts at discernment. What a corrective to those who think they can sit at home, plop open the Bible, and get immediate access to Truth. An American democratic notion to be sure, but not very good theology! Thanks for your comments! Please keep them coming... ---SLC

Thu Jan 18, 03:17:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Christine said...

I'm planning on preaching the Nehemiah text this week...focusing on the power of God's word and the yearning of the people. People, in my opinion, long to hear from God...

We are actually currently studying the entire book of Nehemiah and it has been great - nothing I ever had to study in seminary, so I am learning a ton too.

Wed Jan 20, 05:49:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger ... said...

I, too, am preaching this text this Sunday. Since the church is celebrating "Reconciling Ministries" Sunday, after a period of discernment about inclusion of LGBT persons, the focus on communal wrestling with scripture is wonderful.



Thu Jan 21, 11:07:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone else see a connection between this reading and the situation in Haiti? I'm thinking that the Nehemiah passage comes on the heels of the most devastating event in Israel's history - yet when the people turned to scripture and rededicated themselves to the Lord's guiding hand, they were able to restore themselves and find joy. Might that not be a lesson in the face of all of the various "captivities" we face in our own lives? (referencing the gospel for this week). Or do you think that's a stretch for this passage? DDA

Thu Jan 21, 11:35:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Patti Morlock said...

i think we need to be careful in making a correlation between the people of Haiti and the people of Israel. What happened to the people of Israel was of their own doing. What happened to the people of Haiti was not. I plan to focus on the Joy of the Lord as our ultimate strength even in the midst of the most trying of times and that nothing can take that away from us if we are grounded and rooted in the covenant promise.

Fri Jan 22, 02:08:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ditto. That's really what i meant. May the joy of the Lord be the strength of the people of Haiti and also our strength too in our own times of suffering. DDA

Fri Jan 22, 08:10:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Bill C said...

Dr. Cook,
Thanks SO much for this! I found it immensely helpful as I'm preparing to preach this Sunday (2010). It really helped get me un-stuck.

Fri Jan 22, 08:21:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Many thanks for these comments! ---SLC

Fri Jan 22, 10:34:00 PM GMT-5  

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