Sermon Briefs: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Peter Morgan's sermon on this passage from Nehemiah, An Old Story Newly Told,1 presents a case for the importance of "remembering" in the life of a people and reflects the value of this passage for us in understanding our own worship service.
Morgan, who is the Director of Worship and Renewal for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Division of Homeland Ministries, begins by remembering people in his own life. There is Henry, an elderly man whose wife has died, and Julia, a young mother who presented her son for baptism sixteen years earlier. There is a young couple without a name, representing all young couples seeking something from the church. Each one is mentioned by Morgan in a litany of remembrance. This leads into the scripture lesson from Nehemiah, in which the Hebrew people gather as a community to remember their own history. As the people listened to the priest Ezra read from the book of the law, Morgan explains, they were molded into a community and (conversely) it is within the context of that community that the people heard the word of God. This story is part of the history of the people of Israel, and their legacy for the Christian church.
Morgan then outlines the worship service— "the service of the word, the service of preaching"—as it is modeled by the Hebrew people and practiced by the church even today. It is this very service that helps people like us and like Henry, Julia and the unnamed couple to identify "our hunger for God's Word, our being fed by God's Word and the celebration of God's Word in the way we live." Those three points are reflected in the three parts of the worship service—the gathering, the Word and the response.
The gathering, according to Morgan, represents our irrepressible need for ritual. As an example he sites the gathering at the opening of the Viet Nam memorial that had a healing effect on the American GI's that were there. The need to ritualize indicates our hunger for an "outside word," which helps to order our worlds. The Word is what feeds us spiritually, and involves not only liturgy of the people, but "cosmic liturgy," the work of God. The response reveals our celebration in God's word, and is reflected in the way we live our lives, in both seeking and celebrating.
Morgan closes his sermon with an illustration from Elie Weisel's The Testament, in which Weisel tells the story of a Jewish poet who rediscovers his Jewish-ness only under persecution. The touching story of this poet given the opportunity by his captors to write his story, and, in doing so, remembers who he is, well illustrates Morgan's point that ritual and remembering are integral parts of our continuing relationship with God.
Mike McConachie, pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Paris, Missouri, also uses this Nehemiah text as an opportunity to examine worship. Unlike Peter Morgan, however, his emphasis is not on remembering, but on response to God's word.
His sermon is entitled, Overcome By the Word,2 and he begins by quoting the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, "We Shall Overcome." McConachie lists several examples of Americans overcoming, achieving, and conquering, including the Civil Rights Movement, and notes that the Israelites in Nehemiah's time had overcome a lot also. Returning from exile, determined to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem, the Israelites gathered together to celebrate their overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Instead, they were the ones overcome by the Word of God. What happens, McConachie asks, when we are the ones overcome?
Following the example of worship in this passage, he suggests that we can prepare for worship in a way that will allow us to be overcome by God's spirit. McConachie notes that women are present in the Israelites' service, indicating just how special an occasion this is. He outlines the service as follows:
Assembly of the people
Request by the people to read the law
Opening of the book of the law
Ezra pronounces a blessing, congregation responds
The word is read and proclaimed with interpretation
Assembly dismissed for a festival
Though the people respond with tears and sadness, convicted by their failure to live up to the law, Ezra encourages them to rejoice and celebrate. McConachie notes their first response is penitence. Only after the urging of their leaders did they respond in joy.
This ancient ritual, repeated by Jesus in the gospel account from Luke, and by God's people even today, provides the framework in which God's word can be heard as both convicting and liberating, solemn and joyful. As Morgan and McConachie both illustrate, this passage from Nehemiah provides the theological foundation for worship as it happens today.
1. Peter Morgan, "An Old Story Newly Told," Biblical Preaching Journal, Winter Issue, 1989, pp. 14-16. 2. Mike McConachie, "Overcome by the Word," Biblical Preaching Journal, Winter, 1992, pp. 14-16.
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