The Bible Can Change Your Life (Epiphany 3C)
3rd Sunday After Epiphany, C - January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
All the people of Israel 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. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 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. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
In this story from the book of Nehemiah, the Hebrews have just returned to Jerusalem after two generations (70 years) in exile in Babylon. While in Babylon, they were surrounded by a foreign culture and many of them lost their way when it comes to following the Lord God of Israel. They either worshipped foreign gods or just became lax in their religion. Moreover, in exile, without the printing press, they had very little access to the ancient Scriptures -- the Law of Moses, the History of the Judges and Kingdoms, the early Prophets, the Psalms. They didn’t know any of it.
So one of the first things Ezra and Nehemiah did after they re-settled into Jerusalem was read the book of the law of Moses to the assembled people. This was probably all of Deuteronomy. In it, they heard a summary of who God is, who Israel is, where they came from, where they are going, and how they ought to live. Some of it was new, some of it was old, but it overwhelmed the hearts of the people. They were moved to tears. They were convicted for what they didn’t know or tried to forget.
The Bible has the power to move us. The Holy Spirit speaks through the words of Scriptures and moves our hearts. The Bible is a pathway for getting to know God, for meeting God and having your life transformed. The Scriptures can be the voice of God to us, teaching, rebuking, and correcting us from our sins and encouraging us in our sorrows and joys.
There are many examples of Christians throughout the centuries whose lives were transformed by the words of the Bible. I’ll share two from the lives of saints who we have studied recently in Sunday School and in our Wednesday evening Eucharist:
St. Antony of Egypt - He heard the Gospel story of Jesus meeting the rich young ruler. Jesus commanded that man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Antony heard this as a direct command in his own life. He felt sorry for the way he had used his wealth to hurt others and gave it away, becoming a desert monk. For the rest of his long life, Antony became a spiritual teacher and mentor to monks, nuns, laity, priests, and bishops alike (despite never himself being ordained). He met God through reading the Bible and his life was changed.
St. Francis of Assisi - He had already begun to rebuild the deteriorating church in his hometown, when he heard the Gospel read in worship: Matthew 10:7-19. In that text, Jesus says, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near’ … You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” Francis took these instructions to heart and became a traveling preacher. He voluntarily gave up his wealth, depending on the generosity of others and the provision of God for his well-being. He met God through reading the Bible and his life was changed.
It can be encouraging to hear about the lives of mighty Christian saints, who accomplished so much by the power of the Holy Spirit. But sometimes, saints seem more like superheroes than real people who you can touch and feel. Their legends outgrow them a bit and following their examples seems impossible. But in this case, we’re talking about something that all Christians can imitate. The Bible can help you meet God and so change your life. So I’ll share a story from my own spiritual life to show you that real, normal people can do this too.
Like most of us in the room, I was baptized as a baby so my faith journey began before I could even remember it. From then on, through the twists and turns, ups and downs, I was sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever (BCP, 305?). But I have been through many conversion experiences in my life.
There have been a few poignant moments when God communicated with me loud and clear through a stirring of my heart or a rattling of my mind. My firmest convictions and assumptions have been shaken up by the Holy Spirit and I’ve been driven to repentance and even tears. Almost all of these have been tied directly to the Bible, just like the Hebrew exiles who returned to their ruined homes.
One such occasion happened when I was a college freshman. I had just finished my first semester at Messiah College, a Christian liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania. When I started college, I was a Mathematics major. I had been active in church through my teenage years and I sensed some kind of call to ministry, but I didn’t really know what to do with that other than go to school around a bunch of Christians. Math was something I was good at and could probably get a job with after graduation, so I hedged my bets and settled there.
At our school, we had an optional January session (known affectionately as J-term) when you could take just one class at a time every day for about three and a half weeks. My first J-term, I took a literature and history class about the Gospels. This meant that I spent three hours, five days a week in class hearing lectures about the Gospels, and then my homework was to go home and read the Gospels alongside a few textbooks. This class was more personally challenging and intense than any other class I’ve taken in college or divinity school. You might imagine why.
I had glanced at the Bible before and paid attention in church, but I had never read the Gospels beginning to end, all in one sitting. In this class, the task was to read the Gospels and then read them again and then again and again. Over and over, I came face to face with the story of Jesus, staying up late into the night to finish reading and writing papers. Something about encountering Jesus over and over again in the Bible in that concentrated time and place really broke me down emotionally and spiritually.
I think I met God many times that January, but the verse that stood out and has never left me was from the Gospel of Luke, which is still my favorite of the four: "Then [Jesus] said to them all, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me'" (Luke 9:23, NRSV).
At the time, that spoke to me in a way that the sayings of the Bible never had before. Taking up your cross isn’t something dramatic reserved for the saints and martyrs, the superheroes of the faith. Jesus says to take up your cross daily. What were the daily ways that I was following Jesus, and what were the daily ways that I was ignoring this command?
For me, it became clear in the last week of the term. I didn’t want to ignore God’s call on me anymore. So a few weeks later, I went to the registrar’s office and changed my major to Biblical and Religious Studies. For me, reading the Bible helped me meet God and it changed my life.
In hindsight, maybe I was being a little too black-and-white in my thinking; there were other options, and maybe I could have pursued God’s call in a different way. But I don’t have regrets because I followed the conviction I believed the Holy Spirit placed on my life at the time (immature though I was). I will say this. Without this experience of conversion and the path it took me on, there’s no way I would be your priest today. (Maybe God would have gotten my attention in a decade or two, but not this soon.)
For me, life transformation meant an eventual call to ordained ministry, a call to be a pastor, priest, and teacher. But that’s not what it’s going to mean for everyone. God speaks to us each and every day. Regular reading and meditation on the Bible tune our ears to God’s voice. It prepares us for conversions of life.
Many of you can think of a similar story in your own life of the Bible knocking you off your feet spiritually. And if you can’t, that’s okay. But it might be time to start spending a little more time and energy reading and absorbing the words of the Bible. (Forward Day by Day and the Daily Office are great places to start.)
But be warned. The Bible is not for the faint of heart or those satisfied with the way things are. Through it, the Spirit of God might totally change your life. Amen.