“God’s Story is Your Story”
January 24, 2016
By John PartridgeU
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-10 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Do you watch the news about what is happening in Europe?
As we watch the Middle Eastern immigration into Europe, we are seeing some very ugly things. Some, though certainly not all, of the men coming into Europe are behaving terribly. Not only is there violence and bloodshed, but many European women are being disrespected, groped, abused and even raped simply because the morals and acceptable behaviors of Europe are very different than the places from which these men have come. Since our morals are similar to those in Europe, we find the behavior of these men to be utterly inexcusable. I do not condone their behavior in any way, but these news stories may provide an opportunity for us to see something in ourselves that we might ordinarily not see. What would it be like, for us, if we were to find ourselves in a new place where all of the rules of behavior were different?
I have several friends who experienced this to varying degrees as they adapted to life on the mission field. In other places, things that are absolutely normal to the people there are quite different to those of us who were raised in another part of the world. Rules of conversation, behavior, and even simple gestures are entirely different. And so, as we think about this sort of culture shock, let’s thinking about tis as well: What would it be like if you had never heard the word of God, and then, as you came to faith in God, suddenly discovered that there were things that God wanted you to do, but many of them were things that you had never heard? In that sense, the followers of God are much like the newest immigrants to Europe. New believers come to church and suddenly discover that the rules of behavior, morality, and every day life have become much different than they used to be.
In our first passage of scripture this morning we read from Nehemiah 8:1-10, and in this passage the people if Israel, having recently returned from captivity in Babylon, and having completed a wall around the city of Jerusalem, gather together to hear the scriptures read to them. Having grown up as Jewish slaves in Babylon, many of these people had heard only those parts of the scriptures that their parents and grandparents had memorized. Even those who had been able to hear portions of scripture were unlikely to have heard all of it, and since almost no one had access to the few copies that were available, if they had heard any of God’s word at all, it was only in bits and pieces and on rare occasions. And so, as soon as they have finished the walls of the city and have secured for themselves enough safety to take a day off and bring the people together, the priests call everyone in the city together for a day of celebration.
8:1 All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah tells us that all of the people in the city came together as one. They were of one mind and they all came so that they could hear the words of the God. As Ezra the priest began to read the scriptures, other priests echoed the words out to the crowd to be sure that everyone could hear and they explained the meaning of what Ezra had read. As a sign of respect, when the word of God was read, the people stood. And this went on for hours. But there were times where the people heard things that made them worship God with all their might or repent of things that they had done, and at those times the people fell on their faces before God.
At the end of the day, Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest, and all of the Levites who were leading worship reassured the people and tried to calm them because many of them were weeping. For years they had worshipped God, but as they heard his words read in public they had been convicted that they were doing wrong. For the first time, they were hearing the instructions of God, instructions on the morality of God, and instructions on how God’s people were to behave and act. And as they listened, they had culture shock. They discovered that what they were doing was not what God wanted. They discovered that the rules were different than they had expected, that the way that they were living was not acceptable to God, and that the way that they were behaving fell short of God’s standards. But instead of condemning them, Nehemiah encouraged them to rejoice, enjoy the food and drinks that had been brought to the celebration, and to rejoice in the God that loved them.
The people had come to worship God, to honor him, and to praise him. And in doing so, the people had been convicted of their guilt. They learned for the first time, or remembered, what God had called them to do. But because all of this was new to many of them, Nehemiah does not call on them to punish themselves. They had heard the words of God, they had repented of their sins, and now they could adjust, and begin to live new lives. Now they could do better. Now they could begin to change their behavior to be more like the people God was calling them to be.
Eventually, the entire synagogue system eventually mirrored this model. Each week, the people would gather in the synagogue, a portion of the scriptures would be read, and a priest would explain to everyone what it meant and how they might apply that teaching to their daily lives. In fact, this remains a good description of Christian worship even today. And so, with all of this in mind, let us turn to the words of the Apostle Paul where he teaches the words that I shared with the children just last week (1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
One result that sometimes comes from reading scripture is that, as we begin to identify as Christians, and as we begin to model the beliefs and behaviors modelled in scripture, we also begin to excuse ourselves from some of the harder pieces. We hear the stories about spiritual gifts and the fruits of the Spirit and we say to ourselves, “Those are the things that pastors do.” Or, “Those are the things that leaders do.” Or, “Those are the things that only people who are specially called and gifted can do.” Or even, “I wish I was like that person because they are special and can do those special things.” None of this is new. Paul was hearing the same excuses two thousand years ago and this was his response. Paul says that we are all one body but we are not all the same. Each of us has been created differently and each of us has been given different gifts.
But make no mistake, each of us have gifts.
And so each and every one of us must do that part that God has called us to do. The body can’t work the way that it is supposed to with only one eye or with only one foot. Paul addresses all of the people who have come to faith in Jesus Christ and he says, “ Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Each of you are a part of it.
When we come to faith in Jesus, not only are there new rules of behavior and morality to which we must adjust, we must constantly be reading, listening, and studying the word of God to discover where we fall short and what we ought to be doing better. Nehemiah found that even people who had heard the word of God had forgotten parts of it and had to repent that they were not doing everything that God expected of them. The same applies to us. The Bible is a big book and there is always something new for us to learn and we can always find something that we can do better. But more than that, Paul reminds us that following Jesus is not a spectator sport. We cannot just sit back and watch what others are doing.
God’s story is your story.
We are all called to be a part of the body, and there is work for each of us to do.
Let us all eagerly desire to do the work of Jesus.
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