Have you ever daydreamed through the Scripture reading in worship?
Yep – me too. And not just back when I was sitting in the pews; sometimes, I’m thinking so much about my sermon that I miss it.
I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want you to, either. So today, we’re going to learn from the story of when Ezra read the Law to the Israelites… and it they heard it so deeply, they cried.
But first, a little historical recap to set the stage. The southern kingdom of Judah was taken by the Babylonians in 586, destroying the Temple in the process. For almost 50 years the Israelites lived in exile, until the Persians came to power in 537. The Persian King Cyrus told the Israelites that they could go back home and rebuild the Temple. That project wasn’t a quick one, but finally in 516 they were able to dedicate the Second Temple.
Today’s Scripture takes place in 458 BC – another 58 years down the road. Ezra, a priest and a scribe, was sent to Jerusalem by the Persian King Artaxerxes. In a letter, Artaxerxes tells Ezra, “You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand” (Ezra 7:14).
The implication is that they’ve been without the Law (read: first five books of the Bible) all that time. In Nehemiah 8 we get the story of the first reading of the Law to the people. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder – and surely that contributed to their teary-eyed response. But there are also several things the Israelites do in hearing the Scripture that contribute to a better state of listening. And good news – they’re things that we can do, too.
Let’s watch and learn from Nehemiah 8…
“…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” (8:1).
Who takes the initiative here? Who asks for the Scripture to be read?
In other words: When we are asking for the Scripture to be read, we’ll probably get more out of it.
When I was a layperson – sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings – there were some weeks where my heart was silently “asking” for the Scripture. Maybe it was a passage I liked, or maybe my soul was just feeling especially thirsty. But I also remember Sundays where the service was running behind and I just wanted to check off that we had moved through another part of it. Or Sundays where I was distracted and antsy and didn’t much care about the Scripture. On those weeks, my likelihood of daydreaming through the Scripture was pretty high.
So, how do we get more out of Scripture? By intentionally “asking” for it. Not necessarily by standing on the street corner and asking me to come read to you (although that would be cool) – and probably not even by literally asking for the Scripture to be read during a service. But what if we came into a service with our hearts set on the Scripture? What if we said silent prayers before it was read, asking God to speak to us again?
If we did – I bet we’d more consistently get something out of it.
“Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” (8:2).
As a preacher, this detail is not lost on me: Ezra simply reads the Law (most likely a selection from the first five books of the Bible). He read for six hours. And then he was done.
Scripture spoke for itself.
While I don’t intend to stop preaching, I do think we ought to start expecting Scripture to “preach” on its own.
Once, I heard Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne speak. This was several years ago, not long after his first book had rapidly risen in popularity. Shane was becoming a hot-ticket name on the Christian speaker circuit. I gathered in a large arena with thousands of other youth workers, excited to hear what Shane might say.
Because I had heard him speak before, I noticed a difference: he seemed a little nervous. He made some introductory remarks about how these multi-speaker conferences could become a kind of competition: Who’s gonna bring the exciting new theological ideas? He said the best material had already been written, and he intended to share that material with us for his “talk.”
And then… he proceeded to read the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5 – 7).
It takes a while to read the Sermon on the Mount out loud. As I listened, it slowly dawned on me that this was all he was going to do. He just read it… and then walked off the stage.
I heard a lot of talks that weekend, from a lot of big-name speakers. But let me tell you: Shane’s is the one I remember. I remember that he read three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew out loud for us. I remember his lesson: that Scripture can speak for itself.
So yes, I’d like you to pay attention to my sermons; I hope and pray that God speaks through them. But don’t space out during the Scripture as though there’s nothing to hear until I start preaching. Give it your full attention. Expect it to have something important to say, all on its own.
“He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday… and the ears of the people were attentive to the book of the Law” (8:3).
In order to really get something out of Scripture, we have to listen attentively.
I fully acknowledge that listening to Scripture read out loud can be hard. Sometimes it’s the content: Paul’s letters are full of metaphors and run-on sentences; the Old Testament can be thick with laws and “begats.” Sometimes the PA system isn’t working well and it’s hard to hear. Sometimes we’re just plain spacy, and our minds wander.
But look: the more we put into it, the more we get out of it.
Do whatever you have to do to listen attentively. Look up and give eye contact to the reader. Get out your Bible so you can follow along. Underline parts you find important; mark things you have a question about. Listen attentively like Scripture is important… because it is.
“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” (8:5).
In some traditions, the congregations stands for the reading of the gospel. We don’t usually do that in my Methodist church. But sometimes we do – like Christmas Eve, when we stand for the reading of John 1. If you’ve ever stood for the gospel before, then think: How did it make you feel?
On Christmas Eve, it’s like we’re rising up to the high point of the service – which we are. It’s the culmination of all the Scripture passages we’ve read to that point. “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh!”
We might not stand for the reading of Scripture every time, but we can make other changes in our body language to show respect. We can sit up straighter. We can hold our hands open on our laps, facing up. We might close our eyes to block out distractions. All of those things send a similar message as standing up: they show respect to Scripture.
“Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (8:6).
An appropriate response to Scripture is worship. Which is convenient, because we typically read the Bible aloud during a worship service. Boom!
This is also why we try not to make the Scripture and sermon the very last things we do together on Sunday morning. We want to leave some time to respond to the Word: praying, reciting a creed, singing hymns, giving an offering. Whatever we do after we hear the Scripture, think of it as a chance to let your soul respond by worshipping God.
“They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so the people could understand what was being read” (8:8).
Sometimes Scripture speaks for itself.
But sometimes it doesn’t, right? Sometimes it’s confusing. Sometimes we need help.
For this reason, most of us can’t just read our Bibles alone and home and understand it all. I hope that my sermons shine a little light on what the Bible has to say. But also, notice that this is a “they” that’s making it clear – not just Ezra. Come to a group Bible study and you’ll see exactly what I mean – when we reflect on Scripture together, the Holy Spirit has a way of opening it up.
So: if we want to get more out of Scripture, we can:
- “Ask” for it to be read
- Expect it to speak for itself
- Listen attentively
- Use body language to show Scripture respect
- Respond with worship
- Get help in understanding its meaning
And then, maybe, we’ll weep in response!
But maybe not. And that would be just fine. Ezra himself tells the people not to weep. If we really listen to Scripture it can make us feel all sorts of things… but ultimately, it’s always good news.
And good news is something we don’t want to miss.