Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-10
I have a very complicated love/hate relationship with Legos. I love that they are a building toy that inspires both artistic creativity and imaginative play. However, as a parent I get frustrated with the cost. Lego sets, especially the specialized licensed, sets are not cheap. My frustration is that after the fun of putting it together, the sets are played with, it does not take long from the course of play for bricks to get misplaced, new creations get made, and sooner than later it becomes nearly impossible and completely impractical to rebuild the set as originally created. The other aspect of Legos that, as a parent I get frustrated with, is that they have sharp corners. Words do not express the pain that comes from stepping on a Lego in the dark during the middle of night. Yet, on the other hand, I like Legos because they are just so cool.
I am not the only one who thinks this because people have made some truly impressive creations just out of Lego Bricks. A good example of this is this replica of Buckingham Palace that took over 50,000 pieces and 230+ hours over five months. Another remarkable piece of craftsmanship is this eight foot by six foot copy of the Mona Lisa. Some people have even been able to find a way to make money off of their love of Lego, such as Mike Doyle. He raised close to $10,000 on Kickstarter to bring his 200,000 piece fantasy cityscape into reality. Artist Nathan Sawaya has made building with Legos his profession. He creates incredible art exhibits made entirely of Lego, such as the Art of the Brick that was recently on display at the Indiana State Museum.
There are multiple Lego conventions such as BrickWorld and BrickUniverse where Lego super-fans can get together and share their amazing creation with one another. Making those amazing creations require a lot of time, practice, commitment, and (since Legos are not cheap) resources. The drive for doing it all is a passion and a love for building with Legos. In general as people we tend to invest a lot into the things we love and that we are passionate about. Lego fans will easily spend hundreds of hours making intricate creations, quilters will spend just as long on their quilts, and a Western enthusiast has no problem re-watching all 635 episodes of Gunsmoke.
We do not think twice about investing in the things we love and we deeply moved by the things we are passionate about. Given that, this morning’s scripture can be very convicting of American Christianity. Roughly 75% of Americans claim to be Christian, but only around 20% are in church on any given Sunday. In the same way a 2017 survey found that almost 80% of Americans believe the Bible is inspired by God, but only 48% actually opened a Bible at least once in the past year. In this morning’s scripture we see evidence of how passionate the Israelites were about the scriptures, and it challenges us to ask can we say the same?
The bible covers a dizzying large scope of history, so I think it is important to put this morning’s scripture in the right context. Nehemiah and its partner book Ezra, tell the story of the return from the exile. As a consequence of generations of disobedience, the Jewish people were exiled from the promise land and forced to live as strangers in a strange land. For a couple of generations, the Jewish people languished in exile. However, God promised deliverance and once the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians, King Cyrus began the process of return. The people returned to the ruined and desolate Jerusalem. Under Ezra the temple was rebuilt and then under Nehemiah’s leadership the walls and gates around the city were restored.
This morning’s scripture comes from a celebration of when the wall is being completed. This was seen as the completion of God’s deliverance and it was understood as the promised restoration finally being fulfilled. To mark this joyous occasion and to celebrate all of the people gathered together. They all gathered back together in the holy city for a grand festival. And how did they celebrate? They read the scripture. They read the books of law found in the Torah such as Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. If we were to keep reading in Nehemiah 8 we see that the celebration goes on for seven days. Because people never change, they of course make a big pitch in part of this celebration, but the main event of the celebration is the scripture. Nehemiah 8:18 records, “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God.” This section of Nehemiah also records, “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.” The heart of this joyous celebration was worship centered around the readings of divinely inspired scripture. As we consider how the scripture was celebrated and why it brought joy, I think there are two big take-aways for us today.
The biggest element of this scripture that sticks out to me as how moved the people were by the scripture. I am reminded of a story I read once that came from Romania behind the Iron Curtain during the height of the cold war. The story comes from Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand who suffered persecution under the communists and eventually founded the persecution advocacy group Voice of the Martyrs. Pastor Wurmbrand tells of a Russian captain he met, who had a great curiosity and desire to know God, but he knew nothing of the Bible. He had never seen or heard the scripture read. Pastor Wurmbrand shared with this man the sermon on the mount and the parables of Jesus. Upon hearing these truths the captain “danced around the room in rapturous joy, proclaiming ‘What a wonderful beauty! How could I live without knowing this Christ’ “
The pastor continued the story and shared with this Russian captain about Jesus’ arrest, passion, and death. At this the man collapsed in a chair and wept bitterly. He had dared to believe in the beauty of Christ only to see that beauty crushed without mercy. The best part of this story though, is that the story is not over. Pastor Wurmbrand continued and revealed that after the crucifixion came an empty tomb, a resurrection, and an risen savior. At this revelation, the captain jumped around the room full of joy proclaiming “he is alive! He is alive!”
This Russian officer experienced the same love of the scripture and the love of God’s redemptive story as the people in this morning’s scripture. As mentioned in this morning’s scriputre, their joy was very great, but it also moved the people to tears. Verse 9 states “For all of the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” We tend to be passionate and moved by the things that we love and care the most about. When is the last time hearing the scripture read moved you to tears because it filled you with joy, convicted you deploy or the truth of the scripture was just that beautiful?
There are often several reasons given why people do not read the bible more. One of the top reasons is some variation of “it’s confusing.” I can be sympathetic of that to a point. The bible is a product of another culture and language so it does always flow the way our thought process flows. The bible does have a lot of hard to pronounce names and places that can make it hard to keep the details straight, and often cultural and historical context are needed to get a full understanding. However, if a people who had been in exile and not heard the scripture for generations can be moved and if a Russian captain with zero scriptural experience can get it, then I think we can as well. Sure, we may miss some of the details at first glance, but the if we read the Bible then I think we can get it. The story will come through. I am confident if we took the time to read the scripture then we would hear the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. We would believe the story in the depths of our hearts because it is true, and I think we would find it satisfies our longings as nothing else can do.
In this scripture it is notable how moved the people were by the reading, but it is also worth noting how long they were moved by the reading. If you notice verse 3, it states from daybreak until noon Ezra read as every man, woman, and child attentively listened. For close to six hours, they stood and listened to the scripture being read! Imagine that, six hours of hearing the Bible read. We tend to get jittery if a church service sneaks past an hour on Sunday morning. In fact several years ago an Anglican Bishop suggested that the services in his dioceses be limited to 50 minutes, and in 2010 a Vatican official advised Catholic clergy to keep sermons under eight minutes. The rationale behind these suggestions that is people just do not have the time or attention span to commit anymore time. Yet, a lot of people have no problem settling in for three hours of football on Sunday afternoon.
The single biggest reason people give for not reading the bible more is that they do not have time, but we all know that is not entirely true. None of us that busy that we do not have a few minutes a day to read. We tend to always make space for those things we value the most. This gets back to the Legos. People spend lots of time, energy, and resources to make incredible Lego structure because it is important to them and it brings them joy. When we consider the response and the actions the people took in this morning’s scripture it really challenges us to self-reflect and ask ourselves. Does our engagement with the bible reflect that it is important to us and bring us joy?
Obviously, that is a question we have to answer for ourselves. Personally, all I can do is share with you why the bible is important to me and why it brings me so much joy. The bible feels me with joy, because it reveals who God is. I affirm the witness of the church throughout the ages that the bible is divinely inspired and as such it is our primary source on God. The bible contains God’s love story with humanity, where the God of all creation fights to win back the hearts and minds of a beloved creation. The Bible is full of an imperfect people being courted by a perfect God. For that reason it can be messy and sometimes uncomfortable. However, the bible also has a depth that never seems to run out. No matter how much I read it again and again I continue to discover new things about God and new things about myself. I affirm and believe the Methodist doctrine which states the Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. This means that when comes to being restored to relationship with God, forgiven our sins, and fully reconciled with our creator the Bible is the only source in the entire universe that tells us how to do that. This is why the bible is the foundation of all Christian belief and practice. Likewise, the bible forms the solid ground upon which my own beliefs, dreams, and understanding of life is built. It is the lens through which I try to make sense of the world around me. In our chaotic and ever shifting culture, the bible provides a firm foundation to stand. In other words, the bible brings me joy because in the crashing waves and shifting sands of life, it is a solid rock upon which I stand.
That is why I love the scriptures and why they feel me with joy. I hope you have similar feelings. We make the time for the stuff we love and are most passionate about. So may you make time for Holy Scriptures. If it has been a while since you have really engaged with the Bible, then may you not let guilt keep you away. May you read the scriptures and may it feel you with joy. May you read about the great, unfailing love that God has for us. A love so perfect and so intense that God proved that through Jesus Christ on the cross; A love so powerful that death could not contain it. May you read the scripture and weep tears of happiness, because as this morning’s scripture reminds us the joy of the LORD is our strength.