Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Merciful God, teach us to be faithful in change and uncertainty, that trusting in your word and obeying your will we may enter the unfailing joy of Jesus Christ our Lord.
All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.[ And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.] So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Nehemiah 8:1–4a [5–6] 8–12
9 How shall young people cleanse their way •
to keep themselves according to your word?
10 With my whole heart have I sought you; •
O let me not go astray from your commandments.
11 Your words have I hidden within my heart, •
that I should not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord; •
O teach me your statutes.
13 With my lips have I been telling •
of all the judgements of your mouth.
14 I have taken greater delight in the way of your testimonies •
than in all manner of riches.
15 I will meditate on your commandments •
and contemplate your ways.
16 My delight shall be in your statutes •
and I will not forget your word.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Sermon on Bible Sunday
This Sunday is the culmination of the Trinity Season for the Church. Next week we will be in the Season of Remembrance. I am sure you are all very excited to celebrate Bible Sunday today. But just how does Bible Sunday differ from any other Sunday in the Trinity Season, or any other Sunday in the whole of the year?
This is not a rhetorical question, for I would really like to know why we set this Sunday aside for the Bible, when every day should be a Bible day – at least that is what I said I would do when the bishop asked me as a Reader to be constant in study of the bible and matters theological. Our Collect for today begs the Lord – “help us so to hear Holy Scripture, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” these words which give meaning and significance for the life of the world. Scripture is a book to be read with all the nous the human being has – in order to understand the will of God, according to another prayer assigned to today’s worship. Part of that human intelligence is the dissection of a text. – Don’t worry, I won’t be going into all the disciplines that have been turned onto our holy text. – I just want to encourage all of us to look at the bible with all of our God-given talents for understanding something outside of our own creating.
When we are young and at school we all want to delve into “the intention of the writer”. I remember an episode of Lewis when they were investigating an English scholar in the university. One of the scenes showed him in a tutorial berating one of the students because he did not believe “the intention of the writer” can ever be known in full. In essence he argued that there is so much that is unsaid in a text that it would be impossible for anyone to know the mind of the author – and here we come to the perennial philosophical problem of how we know the other person. This becomes a theological problem for us, because we use the Bible to delve into the mind of God, don’t we? We say to others, “God says this,” or more tellingly, “God wants us to do this!” and we pull a sentence of scripture out to prove our point and substantiate our reading of God’s will.
So, what is the Word of God we encounter today? Or do we even imagine that we engage the Word of God in our everyday lives?
In today’s reading from Nehemiah, we heard, “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” This is a very interesting description of what happened in “the square before the Water Gate”, when Ezra read from the rediscovered book of the law, Deuteronomy. Now I don’t read Hebrew, so I cannot go into the verse in that way, but let’s read this verse with a clear outlook.
In the first place we have to remember that when people read in biblical times, to read meant that they spoke the printed matter aloud, not just to themselves. – St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into the Vulgate version, astounded his contemporaries because he read “without moving his lips.” He read silently to himself. That was a revolution. We no longer read as Ezra did, “so that the people [around him] understood the reading.” We expect everyone to read for themselves, that they will understand the sense for themselves. We read to ourselves without moving our lips, without reference to those around us. We do not read aloud “with interpretation” in church, do we? Our reading aloud sometimes fails in yielding the meaning to people of understanding. We often read in a monotone and sometimes without any sense. The question for the preacher is: How can those gathered to listen comprehend what I am saying aloud?
This is a question we all must address, not just when we read in church. This question arises when we speak to anyone, friend or stranger. Someone asked me for directions the other day. That person had gone up and down the road a few times, asked me where such and such a place was. She didn’t tell me that someone else had already given her directions – I found that out later. Even in the most mundane circumstances we need to speak with clarity so that our listener can hear what we mean, if they are so disposed.
That is the other point our passage from Nehemiah makes,
The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. … He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate …, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
“The ears of all the people were attentive” – this is a significant phrase, isn’t it? Do we really want to speak with people who are not listening? Don’t we get upset with those people who are tapping on their phones, or bobbing along with buds in their ears? We certainly want their concentration when they are with us, certainly if we are supposed to be in conversation together. Is this too much to ask of our interlocutors?
We decry the lack of attention nowadays, but weren’t we the same at some time? Weren’t we the callow youths who once showed no respect? Weren’t we without understanding, gawping at the gyrations of our teachers or parents in front of us, as they tried to make their points to us while we obdurately did not want to understand them, while we looked at our feet or the middle distance? This is what they used to call the generation gap, or what a scholar called the problem of the second generation. We know this from both sides now, as the song goes.
Both sides need to be attentive to the meaning in a situation., but especially when we meet together to listen to the Word of God in its many guises, through my words, through our prayers, through the songs and hymns we sing, through the psalms, through each of the readings assigned to the day. Somehow we must open ourselves to the Word of God. Somehow we must open ourselves to the other, and to that other beyond all others, so that “we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life.” On Bible Sunday as we come to appreciate our sacred scriptures more and more, as that second collect says, we are “faithful in change and uncertainty, that trusting in your word and obeying your will we may enter the unfailing joy of Jesus Christ our Lord.” However, the only way to be faithful in change and uncertainty is to listen to scripture “to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life.”