A Whole New Meaning – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, January 27

My best friend growing up used to play a trick on his dad for his birthday.  One year, he and his mother gave him a birthday card.  He very quickly glanced at the front of it, opened it, and set it aside not even reading the entire message.
     So my friend and his mom decided to be a little sneaky.  Noticing that he didn’t really pay any attention to the nice card they gave him, they grabbed the card while he wasn’t looking and tucked it away for safe keeping.
     The next year for his birthday, they gave him this exact same birthday card.  They even put it back in the same envelope.  And guess what?  He did the same thing as the previous year.  He quickly opened it, pretended that he read every word, and set it aside never realizing that it was the exact same card they had given him a year ago.
     They did this for several years and I’m not sure if he ever recognized that he was opening the same birthday card.  Just think how much money they saved on not having to buy birthday cards! 
     Maybe you might want to try this on somebody who isn’t here today. Give them the exact same birthday card each year and see if they notice.
     You know, I think we’re all kind of like my friend’s dad to some degree.  We see something but we really don’t see it.
     I read about a pastor who preaches a sermon series every year called “Summer Reruns.”  Every summer, when the attendance goes down, he preaches his most popular sermons from the previous year.  He figures that the congregation probably didn’t listen the first time so he might as well preach them again.
     I think that this is one of the biggest dangers for those of us who have been part of the church for any length of time.  We have heard these stories from the Bible so many times that we forget to hear them in new and fresh ways.  We can develop a “Been There, Done That” attitude and it can keep us from growing in a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
     This is why I am so impressed with the people of Israel from our Nehemiah scripture reading this morning.  They didn’t have a “Been There, Done That” attitude.  To help us understand this scripture reading, it’s important to know that the Jewish people had just returned from being in exile.  They are now living in Jerusalem.  They have come home.  But they are a little rusty in what it means to be God’s people in their new setting because they have been in exile.
     We are told in our scripture reading that Ezra who was a scribe and a Priest of Israel found the Book of the Law which was probably what we know today as the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament.  The people who had been without the scriptures for many years gathered at the city square and asked Ezra to read God’s Word to them.  And so Ezra stood on a wooden platform which was really probably a tower and he read God’s Word to them for several hours.
     There was such an excitement to hear these words of scripture, that we are told that the ears of all the people were attentive.  I like that word.  Attentive.  They were attentive to what was being read to them.  It was like they were hearing these words for the very first time.
     And I like it that Ezra didn’t do all of this by himself.  Ezra was very wise.  He had scholars and priests on hand to explain what was being read.  I’m glad that we’re not the only ones who need a helping hand in reading the bible.  Even God’s people who were living during biblical times needed support in understanding the meaning of the scriptures.
     Here’s a way to confirm how important it is to have other people help you understand the bible.  Go to a bible study or a Sunday School class and listen to some other perspectives.  I guarantee you that there will be some new insight that will help you to see that passage in a new way.  The reason for this is because we all have our unique experiences and personal stories and this shapes the way we hear and understand the scriptures.
     In our own Methodist tradition, we have what is called the quadrilateral approach to the study and understanding of scripture.  The bible itself is the first part of the quadrilateral. The second part of the quadrilateral is tradition where we explore how the church has interpreted the scriptures for the past two thousand years.  
     We can see how church councils, theologians, and bible scholars have approached various issues from a biblical perspective. Even though the church hasn’t always agreed on how to interpret various passages of scripture, it is to our detriment to not be aware of this incredible resource of tradition.
     The third part of the quadrilateral is reason where we are called to use our minds in thinking through what a scripture passage is trying to tell us.  By using reason we know that when we read a verse like Matthew 5:30 where Jesus says, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” we know that it doesn’t literally mean that we are to perform an amputation.  
     Jesus was using the literary form of hyperbole to make an important point that living a life of holiness is extremely important.  When we read the bible, we need to be aware of the many different kinds of literary devises that the biblical authors use such as parables, proverbs, letters, stories, and poems. That can make all the difference in the world in how you interpret the scripture passage we are reading.
     And the fourth part of the quadrilateral is experience.  How you have personally experienced God at work in your life and in the world is incredibly valuable in our approach to scripture. Here’s an example of how experience helped someone to understand familiar scriptures in a deeper way.  
     A member of a church I was serving went on a mission trip to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world.  When she got back from her ten day trip in which she cared for the dying and saw people eating out of the garbage just to have something to eat, it gave her a totally new perspective on the scriptures, especially the prophetic books of the Old Testament that talk so much about not forgetting the poor and those who are in need. 
     Every time she read those scriptures, those images from Haiti came to her mind.  That mission trip experience was transformative.  I remember when she called me on the phone after returning from Haiti.  There were deep sobs on the other end of the phone as I listened to her tell me how her trip to Haiti gave her a totally new perspective in what it means to live out her faith.
     This is why bibles studies and small groups are so important.  Not only do we get to hear other people’s experiences, we can also share our unique perspectives and together we can have a more well rounded view of the scriptures.
     By applying the quadrilateral, the scriptures become alive for us because there’s always new insights even if we have heard these same stories over and over again.  This is what helps us to not have a “Been There, Done That Attitude.”
     This focus on the time when Ezra read the scriptures to the people after they had returned from Exile gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we can become more rooted in the scriptures.  
     There are many ways to do this including attending worship where the scriptures are read and proclaimed, attending a bible study which we offer here from time to time, and through a personal reading of the Bible each day.
     A lot more could be said about all of that, but even more importantly, I want to offer some thoughts about the Bible that I have found extremely helpful in my own faith journey.
     And the first thing I want to say and I can not emphasize this enough is to realize that each one of us is biased when we read and interpret the Bible.
     Just think about it. The Bible was written a really, really long time ago, like I mean a really long time ago. 
     Most bible scholars say that the last books of the Bible that we have today were not written down in their final form until the end of the 1st century AD. That’s almost 2,000 years ago. To put that into perspective, imagine being transported back in time even just 200 years ago. That would be the year 1819. 
     So all of the sudden, you are living in 1819. James Monroe is your President. Thomas Jefferson founds the University of Virginia, Spain cedes Florida to the United States. Alabama becomes a state. And the famous American naval captain Oliver Hazard Perry who defeated the British on Lake Erie six years earlier dies.
     Like, I can’t imagine how I would function in a world that would be that radically different than the world I am living in today. It would be unbelievable. 
     Now, just think about being transported back in time not just 200 years ago, but 1,900 years around the time when the Bible was finally completed.
     One of the things that I always try to remember when reading the Bible for my morning personal devotional time, or when I prepare a sermon or a bible study is to remember that…
     …the Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us. Whenever you read the Bible, remember that you are reading someone else’s mail. Each book of the Bible was originally written for a particular group of people who were living during a particular time of history facing particular circumstances.
     The good news is that there are some really awesome bible study resources that we can use to help us understand the historical context of when a bible passage was written. I highly recommend that if you don’t already have a study bible that you consider getting one.
     Keep in mind that not every study bible is worth buying. I would recommend the Interpreter’s Study bible because it offers some of the very best and most recent research and scholarship for each book and passage of the Bible. The Wesley study bible is another good one.
     All of this background helps us to understand what the Bible first meant to the people for which it was originally written. So remember that the Bible was not written to us.
     But, it was written for us which means that once we understand what a passage of scripture meant to the original audience, we can then be in a position to think about what that scripture means for us today and the particular historical setting and situation in which we are living.
     So, keep this all in mind whenever you read the Bible. It was not written to us but it was written for us.
     Notice what happened after Ezra read the scriptures and Nehemiah, the governor, along with the Levites explained the meaning of the scriptures with the people.  It says that the people wept like the church member who went to Haiti wept as she shared her experience with me over the phone.  The people wept and they worshipped the Lord.
     But then it says that Ezra gave this benediction and sending forth to the people, “Now go, and celebrate because this day is holy to our Lord and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
     Whenever we spend time in the scriptures at home, in a bible study, in a Sunday School class, or right here in worship, God speaks to us through his Word and we are reminded that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
     Each year, the 600 clergy of our Conference gather in the spring for our annual meeting. One of the things that we do at this meeting is recognize the twenty or so clergy who are retiring that year.  At one of these sessions one year, they asked each retired clergy to go to the one of the microphones and they took turns reading a bible verse that has helped them in their ministry career.
     “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13” one pastor said.
     Without hesitating, another pastor shared his verse at a different microphone,“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. – Romans 8:17”
     Another said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, Believe in God, believe also in me. – John 14:1”
     This next one brought some laughter from the rest of the clergy.“If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. – Galatians 5:15” He obviously had served in some tough church appointments.
     One by one, we heard these experienced pastors share the scriptures that have sustained them over their many years of ministry.  Many of those scriptures, I knew quite well.  But on that day, they took on a whole new meaning for me.
     But here’s the important thing I want to leave with you this morning in thinking about this scripture reading from the Book of Nehemiah. Notice how our Old Testament reading ends after Ezra read the scriptures to them. He said, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
     When we read and study the scriptures together on a consistent basis, that is true for us as well. May the joy of the Lord be your strength.
A Whole New Meaning
Sermon Discussion Questions
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
January 27, 2019
Our Nehemiah scripture reading describes when the people of Israel were gathered together to hear the reading of the scripture which at that time was most likely referring to the Book of Leviticus. The people of Israel had recently returned home from being exiles for the past several decades in Babylonia. They were in need of being reminded of who God was, who they were as God’s people, and how God was calling them to live out their faith.
What helps you to remember who God is, who you are as a child of God, and how God is calling you to live out your faith? 
In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared how the “quadrilateral” approach to understanding the Bible can be a very helpful way to help you grow in your faith. The quadrilateral refers to 1) scripture – there are many different bible translations available 2) tradition – how people over the centuries have interpreted the Bible 3) reason – using our minds to understand the types of literary genres used by the biblical authors 4) experience – how our personal life’s experiences as well as the experiences of others shape how we interpret the Bible.
Why do you think this “quadrilateral” approach to reading and understanding the scriptures is better than simply reading the Bible without using tradition, reason, and experience?
The Bible was written over the course of several centuries and by a variety of authors who were facing particular historical circumstances facing them at the time. All of this means that it is so important to have a good study bible and helpful bible commentaries in understanding the scriptures or we might go away with a meaning not intended by the passage we are reading. In our Nehemiah scripture reading, Ezra had scribes and scholars present to help explain the meaning of the scripture to the people. Our church offers a pastor’s bible study twice a year. We just recently began an Intro to the New Testament bible study. The ending of our Nehemiah scripture passage says that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.” This is true when we open ourselves to hearing and incorporating the Bible in our daily walk with God.
What are specific ways that you can incorporate the Bible more in your life?