SERMON ~ 01/23/2022 ~ “Understanding”

READINGS: 01/23/2022 ~ Third Sunday after the Epiphany ~ Known in Some Traditions as the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21 ~ VIDEO OF COMPLETE SERVICE:


“So they, the Levities, read from the book, from the Torah of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” — Nehemiah 8:8.

When I was in my last year at Bangor Seminary a well known New Testament scholar, the Rev. Dr. David Trobish, took over the reigns of the New Testament Department. Trobish came to Bangor from Heidelberg University in Germany.

Was it strange that a scholar with an international reputation might choose to come to a small Seminary in a rural State? No. Why? Dr. Trobish filled the slot of the late Rev. Dr. Burton Throckmorton, the professor with whom I studied the New Testament, a scholar with an international reputation.

This is just one of Burt’s books, The Gospel Parallels. [1] Often used in college and seminary courses on the New Testament, the book lays out the three synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke while referencing the original, ancient Greek manuscripts. In three columns it shows where the words of the Gospels are, indeed, in parallel— meaning the underlying Greek is the same word and where they are not in parallel.

Back to Dr. Trobish— I was never in a classroom with him since I was in my final semester when he arrived but we spoke, shared meals— that happens at a small Seminary. Just in doing that I heard many fascinating stories. This is one.

In Germany everyone is taxed by the government to support churches. Hence, seminaries are paid for by the state. Mind you, I think there is actually more separation of church and state in Germany than there is here, but that’s a topic for a 3 hour lecture, not a sermon, so I think you’re probably glad I am not going there.

In Germany, if a person wants to be a pastor at a state supported church, even someone whose background is fundamentalist, that person has to go to a state sponsored seminary. David started a New Testament Survey Course at Heidelberg by asking students to examine ancient Greek manuscripts. There are thousands.

Each manuscript of exactly the same passage has many words which are different from one manuscript to another to another. It was at that point, when the students who thought Scripture should be taken literally, said David, that he could see the scales of that idea fall from their eyes.

In short, it is impossible to read Scripture literally once you examine ancient manuscripts. The reality is, in order to understand what is there, the text needs to be interpreted. Meaning is not obvious. Meaning needs to be gleaned. (Slight pause.)

This is what we hear in Nehemiah: “So they, the Levities, read from the book, from the Torah of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Slight pause.)

One of the great precepts of the Protestant revolution is everyone should be able to read Scripture in the vernacular, in their own language. Before that time people died, were burned at the stake, for simply trying to translate the text into another language.

But one of the things we fail to ask about the era in which this idea, that anyone should be able to read the Bible in their own language was promulgated, is ‘who could read?’ Those who could read were a fairly small percentage of the population.

Further, if you could read, odds were you could also read Greek. Why? That literate people studied Greek was a given back then and the Scriptures were available in Greek. Indeed, when Calvin came to the pulpit in Geneva Scripture passages were read in Greek. It was assumed everyone there would know what was being said.

Now, you may have noticed I do not say Jesus Christ. I say Jesus, the Christ. Why? Jesus holds the office of the Christ, the Messiah. I say it that way because that’s what the Greek means, that Jesus is the Christ, and most people don’t know Greek.

So one of things we need to consider when we, today, read Scripture is there may be a need for some extra information about the underlying documents and information about the eras in which the texts were composed. Hence, I always recommend when Scripture is read privately it’s good to have a reputable commentary next to the Bible you’re reading.

Why? In order to understand what’s there, the text needs to be interpreted. Meaning is not necessarily obvious. Meaning needs to be gleaned. A little more show and tell: this is a reputable one volume commentary. [2]

And please don’t worry about the books I’ve displayed and what they are. The text verison of this sermon published on the church web site will have footnotes where the books are named. (Don’t tell anyone; I even put an AMAZON link in there. You could buy them.)

Back to Nehemiah— as we just heard, the Hebrews in the Fifth Century Before the Common Era, were no different than we are today. Scripture needed to be interpreted; to draw a modern parallel, the Levites were the Rabbi’s, the teachers of that era, and it was the Levites who helped interpret Scripture.

There is something else to consider. How do we interpret Scripture? With what premise do we start? Theologian Bruce Epperly says many have forgotten about the reality of Scripture and portray God as a distant, coercive power, Whose Word will separate humankind from lifeless nature.

Therefore, many turn away from the biblical vision of the goodness of creation. Many turn from our vocation as God’s agents of Shalom, God’s agents of justice, God’s agents of love.

But, says Epperly, our call as beloved children of God is to repair breaches, to strive to mend the world, to use our intelligence to work out healing. God invites us to use our intelligence and experience God’s wisdom and love. God invites us use our intelligence to live in harmony with the world rather than see the world as a place to be afflicted with domination.

Indeed, It is up to us to use our intelligence to be agents of God, to take action. What action? The actions of peace, justice, equity, freedom, joy, hope, love.

Where are these actions made explicit? These actions are made explicit in Scripture… when we read it with understanding. Let us pray that we are up to the task. Amen.

First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “A couple weeks ago I said we need to study the Bible. This week I tried to explain how we can do it and why we need to do it. Last, I have an aphorism to share. Theologian Walter Brueggemann said this: ‘The Gospel is a dangerous idea. Our task is to see how much danger we, ourselves, wish to perform in our own lives.’ I might be wrong but I suspect the dangerous idea in the Gospel to which Brueggemann refers are actions. We know these actions as peace, justice, equity, freedom, joy, hope, love.”

BENEDICTION: Through God’s grace, by being attentive to God’s will, our deeds and our words will change our world for we will discover ways to proclaim release from the bondage of narrowness. Let us seek the God of Joy. Let us go in peace to love and serve God. Amen.

[1] Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, New Revised Standard Version; ISBN-13: 978-0840774842.

Amazon Link:

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press; ISBN-13: 978-0687334117.

The Amazon Link:

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