Nehemiah 8:1-8, Deuteronomy 6:4-7 (VT #187), John 1 (VT #235)
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila, the main character asks her husband, who happens to be a pastor, a question about preaching. She asks him, “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something.”
I’ve been thinking about that line ever since I read the novel almost a decade ago. “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” I think about her question whenever I start working through a Bible passage, wondering if what to say this week will be any different than what I said the previous week. This passage will mean something, I know it does.
We have all sorts of thoughts, about this world, about God, about the past week, about the past year—and the question at the heart of preaching is, what does this life that we have mean? To preach involves a rhythm of return to Bible to get a sense for what all of this means, that we are here for a reason, that God has a word for us.
I think that’s the task of the preacher, to guide us into a posture toward the Bible, to explore whatever Scripture passage we have for this week, in our search for a word, a word for our lives, something to hold onto, to guide us, to help us find our bearings—a word to accompany us, for us to depend on, a word to renew us.
The story we heard from the book of Nehemiah is a kind of paradigm for us, for the church, in how we understand our relationship to the Bible and the preacher. The people in the story are rebuilding their lives after the Babylonian empire decimated their society. They’re busy rebuilding their cities, their homes. And they make some time to gather, to assemble together as a people, and ask for the scribe, Ezra, to read aloud from the book of Moses, a passage from their holy scriptures.
The people ask to hear a word, a sacred word. Actually, the people do more than ask. They tell Ezra what to do. This is from the first verse of our passage: “They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1). It’s not Ezra’s book, that he brings out because he has something to say, and he’s looking for some divine authority to back him up. Instead, the book belongs to the people. God had given the people the scriptures, and Ezra is appointed as the servant of the people—to read, not for himself, but for the people, for the gathered community.
After the public reading, other people offer interpretations of the text. We heard a list of names of the group who offered reflections on the reading for that day. This is verse 8, the ending of our passage: “They read from the book…with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8).
That’s what we do, here, when we gather, when we worship. We read from the scriptures and offer interpretations. The preacher gets us started, then others pick up themes as we take the meaning of the passages in more directions, as we connect the words from the Bible with our lives.
For us, as Mennonites, as part of the Anabaptist tradition, we set aside time during worship for community interpretation of the Bible, for communal discernment of the word—because the preacher shouldn’t have the last word on the meaning of the passage. The preacher doesn’t have the last word because the bible belongs to the people, to all of us. The community has been entrusted with authority over what the scriptures mean. If someone has another interpretation, a further sense of what the passage has to do with our lives, then all of us should hear it—because we need guidance, we need a word for our lives, we need a sense of what God’s life has to do with ours, with our world this week. We’re in this Christian thing together, and we need all the help we can get, and that means listening for what God may be saying through each other, in our collective wisdom.
Which is also why sometimes we differ with each other in our interpretation, and we think the disagreement matters enough to offer to the community—to add our voice to the conversation, to trust that the back and forth that happens here, during our worship, leads us further into the depths of God.
In the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo, a North African bishop, said that God has given us a Bible, written with human hands, full of unclear meanings, because the point of book is for us to depend on each other for understanding, to listen to each other for what the Holy Spirit is saying through the Scriptures. The difficulty is part of the point, because the purpose of Bible, he says, is for us to be knit together through interpretation, for God to infuse our souls with the Spirit, for our discernment about Scripture to be the occasion for the mixing together of our spirits in the presence of the Holy Spirit—for God to hold us in our fellowship with Christ. Augustine goes on to say that we know we’re on the right track, in terms of our preaching and discernment, as long as we’re being led into the love of God and love of neighbor.
That’s the word we’re looking for, in our preaching, in our listening. We’re here, in our worship, to surround ourselves with revelations of God’s love. That’s the word that we’re waiting to hear, to speak to each other, and to show our neighbors. Preaching guides us into God’s love. That’s the word at the heart of all the words in our Bible, the root meaning, we could say, of all the words on the page.
And that word is summed up in the life of Jesus. That’s what the passage from John’s Gospel is all about—the verses we read together from our hymnal, from John chapter 1. In the beginning was the Word, and that Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, the one whose life revealed the nature of God. The Word of God is the life of Jesus. The life of Jesus is what God’s word sounds like. Jesus is the communication of God’s word in the flesh. And that word is love—that God so loved the world, as we hear later in John’s Gospel, in chapter three.
The good news is that the one who created us, loves us. The one who made this world, love this world. And that we are here, gathered for worship, for God to renew us with that love, to remind us how to love our neighbors—and not just to remind us, but to inspire us, to give us space, this hour, to let the words of Scripture surround us, to bounce around the room, as we figure out which ones we need to hold onto for this week.
“Keep these words,” God says in Dueteronomy chapter six—recite them, talk about them. Keep them in your heart, when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Here, we gather, we recite our scriptures, we speak and we listen, because we are waiting for a word, a meaningful word, a word to ponder in our hearts, a word to take on our flesh, to become part of our lives, a word to guide us, to accompany us, a word we can depend on, to give us strength and renew our hope.
Worship is how we wait together for that word, for that word to become flesh among us—God’s word of love: that the one who created us also loves us and has commissioned us to love this world, to love our neighbors with the love of God.
We’ve been entrusted with this word. That’s the meaning of the Christian life. We repeat ourselves every Sunday, listening for that same word to take on new meaning week.
 Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York, NY: Picador, 2014), 34.
 Augustine, De doctrina christiana, prologue, 6; Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1958), 5–6.