24th January 2016 - Hugh Perry
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
According to Maurice Andrew, and the sources he quotes, Nehemiah chapter 8, which we are reading from, once belonged to the book of Ezra. The place of the reading of the law is at the original Watergate and mention of ‘the book of the law of Moses’ indicates that Ezra had a written collection of Torah.
Andrew also notes that the law was read and others explained its meaning so it seems to mark the beginning of the exposition of written scripture which has remained an essential part of Judaism and Christianity. . Raewyn is reading for us
Luke introduces this episode in his home synagogue as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than follow Matthew and Mark who place it later in the narrative
Craddock says that Luke positions this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because ‘his first priority is always to announce who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, what his church will be and do, and what will be the response of both Jesus and the church’.
Luke is also reminding us that everything Jesus says and does is within the tradition of Judaism so Jesus demonstrates his faithfulness, affirms the Sabbath, the Scriptures, and the synagogue. Jesus not only attends the synagogue regularly but participates, as all male adults were permitted to do.
By reading Isaiah 61: 1-2 Jesus not only announces fulfilment of the prophecy but defines his messianic role in terms of Isaiah’s servant song.
The first few words of our call to worship state:
In myth and poem and parable, in historical chronicle and friendly letter, in lament, and exultation, and oracle, the Bible has served as a vehicle for the creative word of God over some 5, 000 years.
It then challenging us by suggesting that:
We are called this day to find our place in this history of salvation, this story of God’s continual working with God’s people, and to make our response to the Divine Spirit, that the story may continue to be told, working still as such a vehicle in this and succeeding generations’.
That is certainly something worth thinking about as we begin this year where we move from being exiles and look to return to our rebuilt church complex.
The content of the books of Nehemiah and Ezra is split between the two books but the names refer to the two officials involved.
‘Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe’ (Nehemiah 8:9)
There had been a change in policy since Jewish leadership was taken into exile in Babylon and the exiles were sent home. However they would still be part of the Assyrian Empire and Nehemiah, who was a Jew, was sent back to Jerusalem as governor. The book of Nehemiah focuses on his efforts to rebuild the city walls but he also had to rebuild the city into a profitable functioning community so that it can pay its tribute to the Assyrian Empire. Therefore he enlists the aid of Ezra the priest along with the priestly tribe, the Levites. They begin the process by going back to their scriptural tradition, the sacred writing they use to find God in their lives and the lives of their community.
However Ezra understands that reading ancient myth, poem, parable, and historical chronicles is only helpful in giving meaning to people’s lives if it is related to present context.
‘So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that people understood the reading’. (Nehemiah 8:8)
It is important to understand that the word interpreted ‘law’ is ‘Torah’, which consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. So as well as the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy it contains Genesis and Exodus and therefore is a lot more than a list of rules. Those books contain conical, saga and myth as well.
Early Judaism, like many faiths, centred on the sacrifice and consumption of animals in a spiritually significant place and by the time of Jesus the Jerusalem Temple had become the only acceptable place. One of the disagreements with Samaritans was that they didn’t sacrifice at the temple. There are also numerous references in the Old Testament to kings who suffered calamities because they sacrificed in the high places. Therefore this very early mention of the exposition of written scripture as part of worship is very significant and our Gospel reading indicates the exposition of scripture had become an integral part of synagogue worship in Jesus’ time.
In Fact after the destruction of the temple the exposition of scripture became an essential part of Judaism and Christianity. In Reformed Christianity the exposition of scripture became the central focus. Although more catholic traditions centre on a sacrificial view of communion the reformed tradition demands that the Word is always read and preached as part of a communion service.
Myth and poetry is the way individuals connect with the ‘ground of being’ and the way communities seek out their identity. Civilisations are defined by their stories and ideals, empathy and aspiration is taught and assimilated through stories. Mythologist Joseph Campbell says that dreams are personalised myth and myth is depersonalised dream. Furthermore both dream and myth are symbolic. Campbell was influenced in making that statement by the work of founding psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who did a lot of work on the interpretation of dreams and the place of symbolism in coming to grips with the mystery of life as well as instructing the personality of individuals. Story and symbolism was also seen as important in giving a common identity to communities.
Fletcher also sounds a warning to the liberal church and a caution on interpreting scripture when he writes:
Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that when viewed as science or history mythology is absurd. When a civilisation begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved. Such a blight has certainly descended on the Bible and on a great part of the Christian cult.
That paragraph sums up the endless debates about creation. Genesis tells us that God created the earth. It talks about the joy and difficulty of intimate relationships and the migrations that formed families into peoples and nations. Science tells us about the building blocks of creation, the interrelation of all living things and traces the DNA history of human migration across the globe. Both are true and neither are complete. Fletcher’s comments also address the unfortunate habit of quoting passages out of context to build personal gods and self serving rules. Those of us whose task is to interpret scripture are also warned not to spend time debating biblical geography or the plausibility of the feeding miracles.
As we have said the Bible is a collection of myth and poem, parable, historical chronicle, friendly letter, lament, exultation, and oracle. Therefore some of the Bible’s content will contradict other portions but all will contain some truth that helps us understand ourselves and experience the mystery of ‘the ground of all being’ we call ‘God’.
Interpretation needs to understand those distinctions of style and avoid the temptation to reduce scripture to biography, history, or science. Nevertheless both the Nehemiah reading and our Gospel reading point out the importance of interpreting scripture in ways that allow its magic to inform new circumstances.
In our Nehemiah reading we are told ‘For all the people wept when they heard the words of the Torah’ (Nehemiah 8::9). If we read past our Luke reading we find that people get so angry about Jesus expounding the Isaiah passage that they try to kill him. Both of these are emotional responses to scripture and both are appropriate for developing a people of God.
We could well imagine the returning exiles crying as they listened to the Abraham saga and Exodus journey and heard those stories interpreted in terms of their own journey and identity. The people who listened to Ezra at the Watergate were a people who had been dispersed in a foreign empire and now they had returned to be who they were destined to be.
Torah expounded in their context would have been emotional stuff, inspiring stuff, community grounding stuff.
Jesus’ passage from Isaiah in our Luke reading has a strong social justice focus but when Jesus’ interpretation focuses on the shortcoming of his audience they become angry. If we suffer injustice we like someone to fix it for us but Jesus’ message was the ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’
Jesus suggested we each have the inner fortitude, the dream and the hope to change our world. To be confronted by that reality can frustrate us and even make us angry, but that was Jesus’ message.
The gospel writers fleshed out Jesus’ basic message with narrative sayings, parables, scriptural allusion and quotations. They did so by following the classic pattern of the hero’s journey. The hero sets out from everyday life into a world of supernatural wonder, a low point is reached and the hero returns transformed and able to bestow transformation on fellow humans.
The gospels, and the rest of the Bible, are far more than a dry biography or historical fact. Read with interpretation the Bible opens our minds to mystery beyond our knowing and hope beyond our expectation. Through biblical reading and interpretation we are invited by our religious tradition to go on our own ‘hero’s journey’. A journey that transforms us and offers transformation to our world. Christianity is not the only religious tradition that issues that invitation but it is our tradition.
Therefore in spite of all the corruptions the church has suffered over the years it is the best tradition for us. It is certainly the best tradition for St. Albans Uniting in this watershed year as we prepare to end our exile and re-enter our place in the St Albans Mairehau neighbourhood.
We have talked about being Christ in the community with no strings attached. The example of Jesus that we are called to follow is indeed a message of giving of ourselves, of open hospitality, of feeding the hungry, healing the hurts and giving hope to our world.
However both today’s readings call us to something more. We are called as a church to be trustees, not just of our assets and money which both Methodists and Presbyterians are very good at. We are called to be trustees of our sacred scripture and our tradition of reading and interpreting that scripture both for our time and to pass that tradition and scripture to future generations. Despite what our secular society might think the history of mythology and the history of religion suggest that if we fail to pass our religious tradition and our sacred stories on to future generations then it won’t be just the church that dies. Our civilisation and much of what it has gained will be up that mythical creek without a paddle.
As we sit, not at Nehemiah’s Watergate, but at this watershed moment in the history of St Albans Uniting we are indeed called to find our place in this history of salvation.
We are called to make our response to the Divine Spirit in ways that allow our particular sacred story to continue to be told and therefore continue to transform lives and communities in this generation and the generations to come.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.442, 443.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p. 61.
 ibid., pp.61,63
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousands Faces (New York: Princeton University Press 1949) p.19.
 Fletcher, op.cit.,p249.
 Fletcher, op.cit.,p249.