Nehemiah 8:2-3, 5-6, 8-10

January 24, 2016


Every once in a while you will run across something in a secular magazine that feeds your spirit.

There was an item, some time ago, in a Smithsonian magazine that speaks to our lesson for today. It was a story on the history of that legendary town of the Old West, Tombstone, Arizona.

In the late 1870s, minors discovered silver in the Dragoon Mountains of Arizona. An area that had once been desert wasteland became the bustling mining town of Tombstone—so named because the first minor to explore the site had been warned that all he would find was his own tombstone. Like any place primarily populated by men, it was a rough community. In the 1880s, the streets of downtown Tombstone were lined with saloons and gambling halls. But one newcomer to Tombstone wrote these encouraging words, “Still there is hope, for I know of two Bibles in town.”

Think about that. He was optimistic that Tombstone would one day become a civilized community. Why? Because of the presence of two Bibles. Does any other book on earth have such power?

In 1977, at the height of the Cold War, Anatoly Shcharansky, a brilliant young Russian mathematician and chess player, was arrested by the KGB for his repeated attempts to emigrate to Israel. He spent 13 years inside a Soviet Gulag. What kept him going? Just this: from morning to evening Shcharansky read and studied all 150 Psalms, in Hebrew. “What does this give me?” He asked in a letter. “Gradually, my feeling of great loss and sorrow changes to one of bright hopes.”

Shcharansky so cherished his book of Psalms, in fact, that when guards took it away from him, he lay in the snow, refusing to move, until they returned it.

During those 13 years in prison, his wife traveled around the world campaigning for his release. Accepting an honorary degree on his behalf, she told the University audience, “In a lonely cell in Chistopol prison, locked alone with the Psalms of David, Anatoly found expression for his innermost feelings in the outpourings of the King of Israel thousands of years ago.”

What kept this great man going? One thing and one thing only. The word of God.

Our lesson from Nehemiah paints one of the most vivid images of the power of God’s Word in people’s lives that you will find anywhere in all literature. Jewish exiles were returning to their homeland. After construction of the wall surrounding Jerusalem had been completed, the people gathered together and asked Ezra to read them “the book of the law of Moses.”

Now, granted, this was an historic occasion. They had been in exile for many years. There had not been many opportunities to hear God’s Word read. It’s not like the opportunity you and I have each Sunday to hear the sacred words. Still, I want you to notice the impact of the reading from the sacred word. Let me read to you some selected passages from the heart of the story:

“The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly … and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” Did you catch that? A Scripture reading that lasted at least four hours! The next time you complain that the sermon went too long, remember that day when the people of Israel listened for half a day to the Scripture lesson … “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

“And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people … and when he opened it, all the people stood up.” They stood up! Now, we’re not told whether they remained standing for the whole day or not, but clearly this was a sign of reverence and respect. Student sections at universities stand for entire sporting events to support their teams, but it’s rare when local congregations are that enthusiastic about the reading of the lesson for the day.

“Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands.”

This was a lively congregation. I know it’s the custom in some churches. However, if you were to break into an “Amen, Amen,” response in our services, I would probably faint.

But the congregation did more than say “Amen” and lift their hands. We read in verse nine, “All the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

They wept! They were moved to tears to hear this reading of the law. Surely these people could say with the Psalmist, “O how I love Thy Law! It is my meditation all day long.”

This book that you and I so take for granted has been a source of both the light and delight to millions of people through the ages. It has been the source of inspiration, first to the children of Abraham, and then for the followers of Jesus. Why is this so? Why is the Bible so important to our faith? A couple of reasons:

First of all, we need an overall philosophical and moral structure to our lives. The Bible gives us that structure.

The Bible is not an easy document to work with. It is confusing at times. Some parts conflict with other parts. But when we read it, when we discuss it with other believers, and when we prayerfully seek to break open its meaning, we find there, as we can find nowhere else, a plan for abundant living, a plan for happiness, a plan for peace and joy. And that is something that every person desperately needs.

Dr. Steven Reiss, in his book Who Am I?, separates happiness into two different categories. He calls one category “feel-good happiness” and the other “value-based happiness.” Many of us pursue feel-good happiness, which is based on good sensations and positive circumstances. When you eat a hot-fudge sundae, hit a home run, or enjoy an intimate moment with your spouse, you experience feel-good happiness.

Value-based happiness, on the other hand, comes from the sense that your life has meaning. Raising a child, contributing to a charity, standing up for high ideals–all these things inspire value-based happiness. People who experience value-based happiness can find joy in simple pleasures, and can renew those feelings of happiness every time they reflect on the things that give their life meaning.

In contrast, feel-good happiness fades as soon as the physical sensations fade. People who pursue feel-good happiness soon find that they need larger and larger doses of sensation in order to experience the same level of happiness, just like an addict needs larger doses of a drug in order to get high. Too much feel-good happiness and not enough value-based happiness results in feelings of emptiness.

As we age, we may have fewer opportunities for feel-good happiness, but more opportunities for value-based happiness. We may suffer the aches and pains of aging, our senses may become dulled a bit. But we don’t lose hope, because we have other things to bring us happiness, like the love of family and friends, the assurance that we have lived an honorable life, the knowledge that we have contributed positively to the future, the opportunity to volunteer in our community. All these things generate value-based happiness that lasts much longer than the feel-good happiness we once experienced.

Where do we find the values that give our lives meaning and direction? You know where. In a book. God’s book. The Bible brings us abundant life by providing a philosophical and moral structure for our living.

But we need more than a structure for living. We need to allow that structure to shape our lives.

That is, I can embrace certain ideas in my head and never allow them to take residence in my heart. Even though the Bible helps provide a safe philosophical and moral structure for our lives, it is not a book of either philosophy or ethics. Rather, the Bible is the product of a living encounter of real people with the eternal God. Out of that encounter their lives were changed. That’s what happens when someone is really into the Word. Change takes place.

Think of it this way: I can own a diet book. Occasionally I can take it down and read from it. But unless something happens within my heart and soul that says, “I want more than simply a working knowledge of a diet book. I wanted to change my eating habits, change my exercise habits; change the way I think about food. I want to lose weight!” Then, something might happen.

The powerful thing about the Bible is the influence it has in shaping human behavior.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish social critic and scholar, is often asked, “Does religion have a positive influence?” His favorite response is to tell a story. Say you are walking down an alley at 11:00 PM in New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. The dim streetlights illumine your car 300 yards away.

Suddenly you see 10 young men wearing leather jackets swaggering down the alley toward you. You feel tense, threatened. Would you feel more comfortable, asks Dennis Prager, if you knew that those young man had just come out of a Bible study? Every time Prager has asked that question the answer has been, “yes.”

Of course we would be more comfortable. Given this example even the most hardened cynic would have to admit that the Bible has an effect on people’s lives. This book gets inside people. It changes people. Let’s look at one more example.

Jurgen Moltmann is one of the most influential theologians of our time. Moltmann was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1926. His German upbringing was thoroughly secular. At 16, he idolized Albert Einstein, and anticipated studying mathematics at University. He took his entrance exam to proceed with his education, but went to war instead. He was drafted into military service in 1944 and became a soldier in the German army. Ordered to the front lines, he surrendered in 1945 to the first British soldier he met. For the next few years, 1945 to 1948, he was confined as a prisoner of war and moved from camp to camp, first in Belgium, then Scotland, and finally England.

Moltmann lost all hope and confidence in the German culture because of the horrific death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His remorse was so great, he often felt he would have rather died along with many of his comrades than live to face what his nation had done. At this point Moltmann was a thoroughly broken man.

And then, one day, a well-meaning American chaplain came by, handing out English-language New Testaments to these German POWs. Imagine that. German soldiers receiving English-language Bibles. Talk about a hopeless gesture.

Fortunately, Jurgen Moltmann knew just enough English to make some sense out of one of these New Testaments. There in the prison camp, under the influence of this English-language New Testament, Moltmann became a disciple of Jesus Christ. He would later sum it up like this, “I didn’t find Christ, he found me.”

After his release in 1948, Moltmann abandoned his field of physics and went on to study theology. Now he is a theologian whose works are read all over the world. He is best known for his ground-breaking book The Theology of Hope. To this day Jurgen carries that New Testament with him as a reminder of what God can do through his Word.

Does this make sense to you? The Bible not only provides us with a structure for our lives, but when we wrestle with the Word prayerfully the Bible actually shapes our lives, if we will let it.

I want to encourage you to adopt a personal discipline, if you have not already done so, of encountering God in his Word each day. Many of you will be helped with this task by participating in a Bible study group. It’s amazing how much more meaning we discover, when we study Scripture together. Well, it should not surprise us. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whenever two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I also.” Discover the living Christ in the sacred pages of God’s Word.

The Bible provides us with a moral and philosophical structure for our lives. Even more important, if we will let it, if we will study it prayerfully, led by Christ’s Holy Spirit, it will shape us into the people God intends for us to be.