Sermon 3 Epiphany, Yr C

3 Epiphany Yr C, 21/01/2007

Neh 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Understanding the Scriptures”


William Lamb Melbourne served as British prime minister in 1834, and again from 1835-41. He developed a strong distaste for religious zeal. Having been forced to sit through an evangelical sermon on the consequences of sin, he grumbled, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade private life!”

The problem with Israel, by contrast, was that the people of God were guilty of exactly the opposite. True religion was so far from their experience, a fresh reading by Ezra from scripture overwhelmed them.1

For around one-hundred-and-forty years, Israel had lived in Babylonian exile. Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians. The people were alienated from the LORD God. Their faith was tried and tested, they were unable and perhaps in some cases at least, unwilling to continue practicing their faith in a foreign land. Eventually however, God was at work to change the political scene and they were permitted to return to the Promised Land. Once they arrived, under the leadership of governor Nehemiah, they rebuilt Jerusalem. Now, with Jerusalem rebuilt, the people gather in the public square near the Water Gate for a national covenant renewal celebration.

The scribe-scholar, priest Ezra unrolled a Torah scroll, and standing on an elevated platform-pulpit, read out loud from “the book of the law of Moses…from early morning until midday.” Wow! Did you catch that? Ezra read the Torah out loud from early morning until midday, that was around five or six hours of steady reading and standing. In our present context, that’s certainly a long time to read and stand! Although one of the things the Canadian Bible Society encourages is the public reading of the Bible as an event to unite churches, celebrate God’s Word, and reach out to people. It seems that after their time in exile the Israelites were now in a state of being which was more receptive towards and hungry and thirsty for God’s Word. Would that that might be the case for more people today!

In our day, the Scripture has been long neglected by God’s people. Many Christians are nearly illiterate when it comes to the Scriptures. One of the biblical correctives we hear in this story is to get back to the Bible.

The story is told of the pastor who visited a Sunday school class one day. “Question my students all you like,” said the teacher. “Who broke down the walls of Jericho?” the pastor asked. Johnny quickly responded, “Not me. I didn’t do it, pastor.” The pastor with a pained look said to the teacher, “Is this kind of response typical in this class?” The teacher said defensively, “Pastor, I know Johnny. If he said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it.”

The dazed pastor sought out the Sunday school superintendent and told him the story. He replied: “That is our best class. I’m sure no one in the class is guilty.” A few days later the pastor reported the incident to the official board. The treasurer quickly spoke up: “Pastor, I move that we pay for the damage and charge it to upkeep.” There certainly is a great need to improve our biblical knowledge!2

Although this story drives home the point for the need to improve biblical knowledge and literacy. I think it also makes a fine point about the misunderstandings people can draw by failing to listen to and interpret words with care. In our first lesson today, we are told: “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” In other words they listened with care for five or six hours to the reading of God’s Word. The people were receptive, and teachable, they had open hearts and minds—which is very important if we are going to learn and grow in God’s Word.

What is it that helps us to keep learning and growing in God’s Word? First and foremost, this is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit freely lives, works and moves within and among us to produce fruit and gifts that help us learn and grow. We cannot control the Holy Spirit’s work, however we can pray with a deep desire for the Holy Spirit’s gifts and fruit so that we can continue to learn and grow. Without the Holy Spirit’s work and presence within and among us, we shall not be able to learn and grow in God’s Word.

Secondly, it is important to examine our attitude towards Scripture. Do we treat Scripture with disrespect or indifference? Do we reduce Scripture to merely world literature to be read and accepted as any other works of world literature? Or, on the other extreme, do we fall into the misguided view of the fundamentalist Christians who worship the Scriptures equally as much if not more than God? We need to be on guard not to engage in the sin of bibliolatry, of making the Scriptures into an idol detracting us from God. Here I think we can learn from people like Professor Emil Brunner, who once said: “Let us read the Bible, thinking constantly of our daily lives, and let us live our lives thinking constantly of the Bible.” Along these lines, Lutheran theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard also offered the following words of wisdom, to paraphrase him: “The Scriptures are highway signs and Christ is the way.” Kierkegaard also viewed the Bible in a very subjective manner. He believed that when he was reading the Bible, the words were as if God was speaking directly to him. Or, to put it a little differently, the Bible is God’s book of life and love addressed to us. In our first lesson today surely that is the attitude the shines forth as we learn how attentive the people are to God’s Word and how it produces in them a humility and repentance as well as joy and celebration.

Thirdly, as we learn from our first lesson today, the Scriptures cannot merely be read always “at face value” without interpretation. Anyone who says they can read Scripture in this way is wrong. Scripture needs to be interpreted. We all interpret Scripture. For example, in Isaiah chapter six, in the Revised Standard Version, of verse one, we read: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.” Now I don’t think the writer was speaking of a train on a railroad track here—indeed no such trains existed at that time in history. Rather, in what the writer is referring to here is the Lord’s robe. Another example of interpreting the Bible is Jesus’ reference to cutting off sinful hands and plucking out sinful eyes—if we interpreted those words literally we’d all be blind and limbless. As we note from our first lesson, there were Levites in the crowd who helped Ezra by teaching and interpretation of the Scriptures so that the people could understand God’s Word. That is also why in the Christian Church sermons and preaching is so important as well as Bible studies. May we continue to learn and grow in our faith, and truly understand the Scriptures and be drawn ever closer to Jesus. Amen.


1 Citation from Emphasis online.

2 Citation from Ron Lavin at <>.