Epiphany 3 · Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 · January 24, 2010
By Bruce M. Hartung
Without a center and a core, life is chaotic and without overall meaning. The center and core of life and of living for a Christian is Jesus Christ; the testimony to Christ (the Word) is God’s Word (the Scriptures).
Introduction to the sermon … the context
Nehemiah and Ezra are our primary Biblical sources for the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile. After years in exile, the children of Israel, God’s chosen people, return home over a period of time chronicled by Nehemiah and Ezra.
Nehemiah orchestrates the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem; the inhabitants of the city gather together “as one man in the open space before the Water Gate, and they called upon Ezra the scribe to bring forth the book of the law of Moses which the Lord prescribed for Israel” (8:1). “Standing at one end of the open place that was before the Water Gate, he read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law” (8:3).
Introduction to the sermon … the theme
Consider what would happen to our universe without the sun providing the core around which all planets, including our earth, are kept in place. Without the sun and its gravity (to say nothing of its warmth), the universe would break apart.
Consider what would happen to our earth and its people without gravity providing the core energy by which we stay firmly planted, by which the sea remains in place, by which even the air continues to surround the earth. That which is on the earth would simply fly apart.
Consider what would happen to our bodies if the core homeostatic mechanisms that regulate body temperature failed. The body itself would fail.
Consider what happens to a group of people or a family that has no center core truths and values around which their lives and their relationships together are organized. It is likely that relationships disintegrate and each individually attends to his own needs and directions.
Consider what happens to an individual who lives without regard to central core truths and meaning. Life without a center gyroscope is lived sporadically, with little purpose, and likely fairly chaotically.
Connecting the context and the theme
The children of Israel returned from the Babylonian exile. Many were living in Jerusalem, and they had even rebuilt the walls of the city. But they still had no organizing principles, central core truths, or basic gyroscopes around which to pattern and organize their living.
Enter Ezra who “read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read” (8:8). The people were weeping when the heard “the words of the law.” Ezra was joined by Nehemiah and together they said to the people, “Do not be saddened this day for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength” (8:10b). The core that organizes living and gives life purpose and meaning: God’s Word.
Applying the theme
Around what is your life organized? What is the center and core of your life, of the life of your family, of the life of this congregation around which all activity, behavior, and living itself gain meaning?
Exploring the answers
Help listeners think through a typical week (or even day). As they outline in their minds (or on pieces of paper available in the pews) what went on in their lives, help them identify the rationale or motivation for the activity or behavior. For instance, the motivating factor for many active families is simply the press to get all the activities done. Many of the activities are scheduled as part of school or work and are therefore done as a more or less passive response to membership in a group or the demand and expectation of the group. The net result is flurries of activity but also, perhaps, a sense of fragmentation and a loss of the center or core around which the family organizes.
Cueing from Nehemiah and Ezra
The core organizing truths around which the children of Israel gathered were contained in God’s law. For us as Christians, the core organizing truths around which we gather are contained in God’s Word; the core organizing person around whom we gather is Jesus Christ. Reading and studying the scriptures individually and together, praying together, and receiving Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist together are all clear examples of keeping God’s Word central as the gyroscope of our lives.
Encouraging from examples
This general application could well be enriched by examples gleaned from worshippers. One way to do this is, in the week before the sermon is delivered, informally ask congregational members how they do this in their lives. Some of these examples, with permission, could be given in the sermon. Another way to do this is to have congregational members who are willing to do so give brief examples of what they do as part of the sermon. If this is done, the examples should be brief and perhaps even scripted. In either case (or in some other way), ideas about this from others could enrich the sermon itself.
Remembering the Gospel
In all these things as human beings living in a world that is imperfect we miss the mark. The core of all of life is that Christ forgives us, embraces us, and loves us with an everlasting love. He remains at the center of our lives even when we may behave, act, or think differently.