A couple of years ago, I attended a continuing education event for pastors from various denominations in Dayton. And before the start of this event, I ended up meeting some pastors from out of state who were attending this event. We shared our names. I shared that I was a United Methodist pastor.
And while I was standing having small talk, I noticed that one of these out of state pastors was holding an interesting looking book underneath his arm, because he was also holding a cup of coffee at the time.
And so I asked this pastor with everyone listening in – “What book do you have there with you?” This pastor just kind of stared at me for a few moments.
After a brief awkward silence, this pastor took full advantage of this silver platter moment and with a mischievous grin said to me, “Uh, this book is what we Baptists call, the Bible. Have you Methodists ever seen one of these?”
OK, so maybe the black leather cover with the gold lettering, and the letters K-J-V should have given me a clue as to what book he was holding. I get that. Fair enough. I’m not the most observant person in situations like that.
What could I do in that moment? I laughed with them and I added to the fun when I said, “Of course, I knew that was the Bible. I’ve seen pictures of what they look like.”
Why people would ever think that Methodists aren’t biblical enough, I’ll never understand!
Our reading this morning from the Book of Nehemiah is about a scribe named Ezra who reads the scripture to the people of Israel, reminding them of the importance of hearing God’s Word. The people of Israel had returned from their Babylonian exile and they were hungry to be fed from the scriptures again.
Everyone - men, women, and children all came together to the city square from early morning to mid-day to listen to Ezra’s reading of the scriptures.
And we are told that when Ezra opened the book in the sight of the people, that everyone stood up for the reading of the scriptures. And not only did Ezra read scripture to the people, he explained it to them so that they could understand its meaning.
Why such hunger to hear the words read from this holy book? Why did all the people stand as the scriptures were about to be read? And why were so many tears shed as Ezra spoke?
Because this isn’t just a book among many other books. This book, which now includes 39 books from the Old Testament and 27 books from the New Testament, tells the incredible story of how God is rescuing his creation from sin and death.
The scriptures that the newly returned exiles were hearing for the first time were scriptures from the first five books of the Bible, or what is called the Torah, or the Books of the Law, since we find the Ten Commandments as well as several other commandments in these first five books.
But these first five books are so much more than a list of do’s and don’ts and “thou shalls” and “thou shalt nots.” These first five books also tell the incredible story of how God created the world and called his creation good.
God created human beings and made us in His image and gave us this beautiful garden, this beautiful garden called the Garden of Eden. This garden had nothing but really healthy organic food. Nothing ever spoiled in this garden. There were no weeds and nothing needed to be pruned - just this perfect, perfect garden.
It was a place where you could just sit and relax and enjoy the blue sky, the perfect temperature with a slight cool breeze, no humidity. You could go hiking through scenic trails. You could play golf if you wanted. There was tennis. It had this really great ice cream stand.
Basically, it was a lot like southeast, Ohio. I mean, that would be a good description of the Garden of Eden, at least in my mind.
This garden was PERFECT with a capital “P” and there was harmony, and peace, and we enjoyed perfect communion with God, our creator. It’s important to remember that there was a time when everything was just the way it was supposed to be.
But then something bad happened. We disobeyed God while we were in that perfect garden and sin entered the world. God sent us out of the garden since we messed things up, and from there, we continued to sin and disobey God.Bummer, right? I know. I’m still not over what Adam and Eve did! Kind of ruined it for the rest of us. Thanks for nothing!
It’s difficult to hear this story because when God created us, we were created to love Him, to worship Him, and to take care of all His creation which He had called “good.” But that’s not how we have lived out this story.
Instead of obeying and trusting God, we turned our backs on Him and failed to be the people God called us to be.
As one Bible scholar puts it,
“The Bible is a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas, not least about themselves, and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion. And that’s only the Book of Genesis!”
I love that quote because that’s exactly right. All of those subplots are in this first book of the Bible that the newly returned exiles would have heard read by the scribe, Ezra.
We might wonder how those newly returned exiles were able to stand on their feet for such a long time as these scriptures were being read, but with stories like these, how could they have possibly been bored? I mean, this is even better than a Reality TV show!
I said that the Bible, that is the 66 books that we regard as the Bible, tells the incredible story of how God is saving his creation from sin and death. For the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, this theme reaches its climax in the story of the Exodus.
The story of the Exodus is the story of how God raised up Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness where they received the commandments and laws of what it would mean to be God’s chosen people, and then God led them into the Promised Land which had been promised earlier through the covenant that God had made with Abraham and Sarah.
This is the story that Ezra read to the newly returned exiles. A story of a God on the rescue. A story of God’s love for His people. Just think of what was probably going through the minds of the people as they heard this story after being in exile all those years.
How could they not have seen themselves as Adam and Eve who had been exiled out of the garden because of their sin and rebellion?
How could they not have seen themselves as the people who were slaves in Egypt and who God rescued through His servant Moses?
Do you think they could see themselves in the retelling of these ancient stories of faith?
The truth is…the story of the Bible is OUR story as well. And every time we hear the scriptures read and proclaimed in worship, we are given the opportunity to place ourselves in God’s story.
Is it any wonder that when Ezra finished reading these scriptures that the people were weeping? These scriptures reminded them of God’s faithfulness and of God’s love for them. And they called them to renew their covenant with God and to live as God’s faithful people.
Approximately 500 years after the time of Ezra, another man stands up to read the scriptures. A scroll is handed to him. And he reads these familiar words from the Prophet Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He 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.”
When he’s finished, he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down. And the eyes of everyone were fixed on him.
But he’s not done. He then offers these amazing words, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In reading that particular scripture, Jesus was able to say those words because it would be through Him, God’s only Son, that God’s rescue mission would be fulfilled. God’s plan to rescue his people from sin and death would find its ultimate climax through His life, death, and resurrection.
This isn’t just a story. This is to be our story. Your story and my story!
Like Ezra and the newly returned exiles, we are a people who have been created in God’s image. We have sinned and rebelled against God. And we need to be delivered from sin and death.
But unlike the story of the exodus in which God sent Moses to lead the people out of slavery, this time it will be God himself who will send His only Son to die on a cross for the sins and the pain of the world. And through Him, we will be made whole. We will be set free from our sin and bondage.
This is our story.
Several years ago, Penny and I became close friends with some folks in the church we were serving. Our children were about the same age and we would often spend time at each other’s homes. Ron’s birthday was coming up and I thought it would be nice to buy him a Bible. And so I ended up buying him a study bible.
When his birthday came, I stopped at his house and handed him his present. The next time he saw me, he thanked me for the bible and for the longest time I didn’t think anything more about it.
Four years later, I was called to serve a new appointment. And for my last Sunday, this church had a farewell party for our family, and Ron was asked to share a few words.
It was kind of a roast, so I was expecting Ron to share something funny that I had done or a silly memory about me, but instead Ron surprised me when he shared these words.
He told the congregation how four years ago, I had given him a bible as a birthday present. And at that point, Ron just started crying and it was all he could do to continue to talk.
As he wiped tears from his eyes, he went on to say, “This is the only Bible I have ever been given. And ever since that day you gave this to me, I’ve never stopped reading it.”
Through Ron’s time in Sunday School, worship, attending church retreats, and by helping with our youth program, he came to know Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. The story of the Bible became his story through his involvement in the ministries of the church.
I guess people still weep when they read the words from this book.
A friend of mine shared with me how he became a Christian. While he was in college, a friend of his invited him to a worship service at a United Methodist church.
And during the worship service, a lady read the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet found in the Gospel of John. And my friend said, “For the rest of that week, I couldn’t stop thinking about that scripture reading. I couldn’t get that image of Jesus out of my mind. Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.”
He said that it give him a whole new perspective on who God is. He never really thought about God being that close to him. The reading of that Gospel story ended up changing his life.
“The reason why I’m a Christian today,” he went on to tell me, “Is because of that bible story.”
I remember after hearing him share this with me, how I began to pay more attention to the reading of scripture during worship. If one story from the Bible could have that kind of impact on my friend’s life, just think what can happen if we open ourselves to what God wants to say to us through the reading of this book.
When I was in seminary, I took a course on the Gospel of Mark. During the first day of class, the New Testament professor told us to come early for our next class session because he was going to recite the entire Gospel of Mark to us by memory.
We all came early that day, and sure enough, he recited the whole Gospel of Mark by memory. He told us to not worry about trying to follow along, but to just sit back and listen to him share it. It took a little over two hours for him to do it, and he did it almost flawlessly.
He didn’t just recite it in a monotone voice. He recited it with the appropriate emotions, pauses, and humor. Because of the incredible skillful way that he told the story, nobody, and I mean nobody, got bored. We were all on the edge of our seats as if we were hearing the Gospel of Mark for the very first time.
I have experienced some powerful spiritual experiences in my life, and that reciting of the Gospel of Mark is one I will never forget.
The story of the bible becomes our story whenever we read it in worship, or when we gather around a table for Sunday School, or around a coffee table in someone’s living room for a bible study, or at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee before running off to work, or when a New Testament professor recites it from beginning to end.
Methodists have always been known for their love of the scriptures. In fact, did you know that the early Methodists were known as “Bible Moths” because of how they would always be seen with a Bible in their hand?
I have been noticing how a friend of mine takes a small leather bound bible with him wherever he goes. To church meetings, to lunch, wherever he goes, he takes the bible with him. Often times, he’ll have it open and he’ll be silently reading some passage of scripture.
I saw him at a meeting some time ago, and sure enough, he had that same bible with him like always.
And you’ll be pleased to know that I knew exactly what book he was holding.