Listen To God [Nehemiah 8:1-8]
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Listen To God – 02.12.2023
[Nehemiah 8:1-8 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17]
Sometimes reading the bible is like working out. I know I should. I know it’s good for me. I know I’ll be in better shape – but the couch is so much more comfortable. Netflix is so much easier than reading. In my life, I have struggled to keep up with my devotions. To read the bible everyday, to have a prayer life – a connection to God. I’m not good at it. I’m not good at remembering to work out either. Can I make a confession – I’m not sure how many times I’ve read the entire bible. I jump around when I read, and I know I’ve read it all – but maybe there’s like a chapter in some obscure part that nobody uses very often that I’m not familiar with. But I’ll tell you, since I became a pastor – because it’s my job to present a sermon on the bible every week, that has forced me to be accountable. Now I read the bible regularly, because I can’t slack off on my bible reading when I have a book report due on Sunday. And when I started reading my bible regularly, I mean everyday – even if it’s just for a few minutes. Reading and studying – I have learned so much about God. I always went to church, but now I’m finding out that God is so much cooler than I ever knew – and all I had to do was start reading this book. I used to be afraid of it, of admitting that the pastor doesn’t know everything. But here in this place I found an environment where it was okay to learn. It was okay to discover God, to unravel his truth and nobody was going to judge me and say, “you didn’t know that already?” I don’t know if you know this – but a teachable atmosphere is a rare thing in the modern church – and it is one of your greatest strengths.
Today we are continuing our sermon series called The Shift. We are shifting our understanding of what it means to be a member of a church. You see for a long time, the church has pushed people to obedience rather than authenticity. Pushed people to a set of rules and unwritten expectations rather than pushing people into the presence of God. We have told people good things, like go to church and read your bible – but if you do not teach them why, they will not do it. Last week we opened by realizing that we need to get our butts to church – and so today we’re going to continue by talking about the bible.
Now, before we get into the text – let me ask you something really basic. Is the Bible true? Don’t answer, but keep that in mind. Is the bible true? You see I want to show you something from Genesis, chapter one. Just about everybody knows the story, even non-religious folk know the story. It’s creation. God creates the heavens and the earth in seven days. It says in verse 24 [read v.24-25]. Now the timeline here is very important. Verse 25, God makes animals. It keeps going, [read v.26-27]. Verse 26, God says – now we make humans. Verse 27 he does it. So God created human beings, male and female he created them. It’s a very clear timeline, Verse 25 – animals. Verse 26 – humans. I know I’m being weird about it, but you’ll see where I’m going in a second. Then we get to chapter 2. Chapter two of Genesis is a second creation story. They tell the same story twice in a row. Which is already weird, but wait until you see what happens. Chapter 2, [read v.4-7]. So here we start off with nothing, no rain, no garden, just springs of water from the ground. Then God makes Adam. It’s a pretty cool story – he makes Adam out of dust and breathes into his nostril – which is like the world’s first mouth-to-mouth and boom, he creates man. Fast forward to verse 18, in-between God sticks Adam in the garden, and it continues, [v.18-19]. First God makes Adam, and then he makes all the animals, and then [read v.20-23]. Just so we are very clear: Genesis 1: God makes animals, and then he makes humans. Genesis 2 – God makes Adam, then he makes the animals, then he makes woman. So who came first? The chicken or the human? Let me ask again – is the bible true?
I know I’m being ridiculous, but this is kind of a big deal. This is the most important book that has ever been written. Did you know that? This book has been translated into more languages than any other, it is the best selling book of all time, and has been for over a thousand years. It is the most given book, like as a gift, of all time. It is the foundation of faith for the largest religion in the world – and four pages into the book it contradicts itself. This is really embarrassing! I mean, what is happening – what does this mean? Should we get out our scissors and cut out chapter two, or something? The answer is very simple – the bible is bigger than we think it is. What I want you to see this morning is that the bible has history, but it is not only history. The bible has poetry, but it is not only poetry. The bible has rules, but it is not only rules. The bible has prophecy and parables and history and advice – but it is not only those things. Now I don’t have time to get into it too much here – but Genesis 2 does NOT contradict Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is a poem, and Genesis 2 is a beautiful story about the need for community and how God created us as compliments to one another. Men and women need each other, in romantic and non-romantic ways. It’s more than just history or not history. There is something bigger going on here. When we find “contradictions” in the bible, and I’m using air quotes on purpose there, when we find “contradictions” – rather than throwing it away, the scriptures invite us to look a little closer.
Alright, I think you can see that pretty clearly, and so now let’s move over to our actual scripture lesson. Nehemiah chapter 8 is a very obscure bible story. Nobodies ever heard of Nehemiah chapter 8. But what’s going on here is that Nehemiah contains the very first sermon ever recorded in history. Listen to these pieces. It says, [read v.2-3]. First they take the book of the law out and they read it in front of the people. Verse 4 [read v.4a]. Now I just need you to imagine a wooden platform (slap your foot on the floor, slap your hand on the lecturn) placed in front of a large group of people so that they could all see and hear the speaker. Verse 5 [read it]. You ever go to a church where they make the congregation stand up for the reading of God’s word – usually if they’re reading from a gospel? (point at the bible). Then the final piece of the picture, verse 8 [read it]. He gets up on a platform above the people, they open the scriptures, read it aloud for the people and then they explain what it means. That’s what a sermon is. That’s preaching 101. When I train people how to preach in churches, that’s what I teach them. This is super important for you to know, because I want you to have this expectation of every person that gets in front of you – preaching is nothing more and nothing less than taking the scripture, taking the bible and explaining it to people. Of course there are stories and illustrations and maybe even a few jokes here and there – but the core of all preaching should be the explanation of the scriptures pointing us closer to God. Now, I shouldn’t have to explain that – however, there is a trend in many churches where the preachers get their topics more from the news or politicians rather than from the bible. This is one of the most important functions of gathering as a group of Christians to worship God – we want to learn more about this God, discover more about the creator who made each and every one of us – and this book is one of the best ways to do that. And so we gather, regularly to read, to study to learn and to grow closer to God. So that’s the framework – Nehemiah 8 outlines preaching.
Now if we move over to Timothy, it gives us some further insight – [read v.15]. Alright, let’s stop there for a second. “You have been taught the scriptures from childhood” – that’s pretty obvious. “They gave you wisdom to receive the salvation that comes from trusting Jesus.” Salvation comes from trusting Jesus, and you know about that from the bible. Following the bible doesn’t save you. Following a list of rules will NOT save you. The bible points you to Jesus, and Jesus saves you. The bible gives you the wisdom to receive what Jesus is giving you. It keeps going and says, [read v.16-17]. Scripture, the bible, is inspired by God and useful to teach us. To teach us right and wrong. Verse 17 again, because I love it, [read it].
Here’s the thing – okay, imagine you’re talking to an atheist, and you ask them – “You don’t believe in God, so what do you think is out there? What created all this, why do we have a sense of something more? Where did we get the idea of wonder and awe and the divine? Why do we have this idea of right and wrong – where did that come from?” A lot of people are starting to say that they don’t believe in God, but most people agree that there is something out there. There is something more to the world. And that’s all we need as a starting point.
There is something out there. Now, how could we as humans learn about that something more? How could we figure out the divine? We can’t! Unless he shows us. That thing we call God rolls back the curtain and shows us who he is. That’s what this book is – God reveals himself, teaches us about himself, through scripture. Through the bible. This is the greatest thing history has ever given us – a detailed account of the revelation of God. God inspired humans to write it down and preserve it through the generations so that we could know and understand even just a piece of who and what God is. And God uses the revelation of who He is to lead us to salvation.
Look, a lot of people in our world say they don’t believe in God, because of how people have misused this book. Bible thumping is phrase used to describe hateful people who use God’s word to hurt others. It comes from people who have a tiny view of scripture as only history or as only rules. They limit the revelation of God and completely miss the point. Truth is, the church – including Methodists, the church has made mistakes. We have gotten it wrong in the past. The damage we have done to people with this book is significant. And we have to do better in the future. God didn’t give us the bible to hurt us, to chain us, or destroy us. God gave us the bible to save us. If God wanted to destroy us, he could just leave us alone – we’re pretty good at that all by ourselves. God gave the bible for a different reason.
The good news this morning is that God speaks to us. When we read the bible, God is speaking to us through this. God is revealing to us who he is. Now, I want to be careful here – we want to remember the lessons we learned from Genesis – that sometimes we need to look a little closer, to go a little deeper to understand it. And the lesson from Nehemiah – that we need to gather and listen to the word and have it explained, to study it. I say that because some people approach the bible like a magic eight ball. They think, God speaks to us through the bible.. so they’ll ask a question, give the bible a shake, open it up and search for an answer. [mimic that – “will I get the promotion at work?”] That’s not what I mean when I say, “God is speaking to us through this book.” It’s not a crystal ball. It’s a revelation of who God is. This is an important book with an important purpose, and so we need to be careful with it.
God speaks to us and our response is listen to what God has to say. The shift I want you to make today is to move from memorizing your favorite bits and pieces of this book to searching the scriptures for the face of God. I want you to shift from the rule that says read your bible, to the daily habit of listening to God. This book is how you listen to God. So read your bible. Not because you have to, or because it makes you feel better – read your bible because it helps you grow closer to God. Because it helps you understand and get to know God. God is speaking, are you listening?
The most outrageous thing that Christians believe is that the all powerful, all knowing – whatever you want to call it, divine higher power that is out there actually cares about humanity. God loves you. That is the most outrageous, crazy thing for us to believe. God cares about us, and wants us to know more about him – because the more we know God, the more we worship him. The more we know him, the more we can follow him – and that leads to the best life for us. And the way we know more about God is all right here in the bible. Here in this church we have a simple, three step process for growth in the Christian life. Feed the spark, fuel the flame, feel the warmth. I look at the new members, new faces, the new visitors we have – those are the sparks. Getting together once a week to encourage, challenge and support one another, to gather and worship God – that’s a great starting point. Step two, once the spark catches in your life – you have to fuel the flame. A relationship with God is just like every other relationship in your life – it takes fuel. Talk to God, we call it prayer – we’re gonna talk about that next week. Listen to God, we call that reading your bible. Keep the relationship alive. You throw one stick on the fire, it won’t be enough – it will burn out. You go to church one time, get your certificate and then never come again – that flame will go out. So the application today is fuel the flame. Read your bible. Discover God – he’s right there, waiting, wanting you to find him.
If you want to hear from God, my hope is that you will realize this morning – that God is right here for you, hidden in the pages of this book. My challenge to you this week is I want you to discover God. I want you to spend time every day getting to know God a little bit better. Read your bible, every single day. Let’s get really practical for a second. Start with five minutes, ten minutes, 20 minutes whatever you can start with. Open it up, read three verses, think about them, talk to God about them. Move on with your day. Our church puts out devotional books called the Upper Room. Every couple months a new one comes out, and that’s just a quick devotional practice every single day. They’re in the rack by the main entrance. You can do devotional books, book studies, read the bible in a year – there are so many resources for digging into this book. There’s devotional books for parents, for women, men, teenagers, devotionals for hunters and athletes – you name it, there’s probably a great resource that will get you into your bible more. Can I have a moment of honesty? I like devotional books, I think they’re a good thing, but I’m personally not very good at them. I start out okay, but I usually lose steam after a week or two. Then I fall behind, I think about trying to catch up, so I fall even more behind. Then I give up for a week or so, and have nothing before I feel guilty and find a new one. My shelves are full of partially finished devotional books. A few years ago I started a practice where I would read one chapter of the bible, every morning. I got up, I get the boys a bowl of cereal. We sit at the kitchen table, I drink my coffee while he eats honey nut cheerios and plays with his legos and I read the bible. One chapter. Every day. I spend a bit of time thinking about what I learned about who God is, what this text tells me -and then I pray and start my day. And that’s it. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar parsing the original languages to listen to God speak in the bible. Or here’s one more. Now that we have more babies, mornings are louder and more chaotic, and I don’t always have time to read. So this year, I’m doing a chronological bible. I’m reading the bible all in order, and there’s an app for that. I highly recommend it. The YouVersion Bible App – it has devotionals built right. But my favorite feature is for when I don’t have time to sit and read. (*open up the app and show them that it reads it to you*) it will read the bible to you, and it’s all free. For me, it has been incredible – I have been more consistent, more reliable and I have grown more as a result. The goal is to spend time discovering God every single day – find your method. I know some people who listen to the bible like an audiobook on their way to work. I know others who love the “read the bible in a year” challenge, and others who live by the devotional book. The only wrong method is to do nothing – to close off access to the God who wants you to discover him.
Make the shift. It’s not about just reading some old book, it’s about listening to God. It’s not a magic 8 ball. It’s not something we read because of some vague guilting pressure – it’s something we read to discover God. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you discover God in the pages of the bible. Ask yourself, is your fire running on fumes? Maybe it’s time for you to get some fuel for your flame – Amen.