Food for Thought-The Book Reviewer: A Sermon (Nehemiah 8:1-10)

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Of the many things which bother me (and let me assure you there are quite a few), poorly written book reviews can be as infuriating as listening to someone clip their fingernails in an area of the house I’ve deemed inappropriate for such an activity.

Ineptly written book reviews, you know the kind, laced with verbal ambiguity and intellectual vagaries say nothing at all about the book in question. They speak more to the reviewer’s idiosyncrasies and personal proclivities than the content of the work being reviewed. Often it is not clear if the reviewer has read the book. One would like to make this assumption but you can’t. By the end of the review, it is not evident if the reviewer loves the book, hates the author, or is completely indifferent. You can see this same pattern in reviews of fiction and non-fiction.

Good, or well-written book reviews do just the opposite. From the beginning, even without saying, “I read this book”, it is clear the reviewer has read this book and every book by the writer in question. You can smell familiarity with a text in the same you could smell me after a week on the Trans-Siberian express. It is unmistakable. With an economy of words, they get to the point and tell you what the author is doing and why this book is or isn’t worth your time and money. These good, well-informed and well-intentioned reviewers do this without spoiling the book. Somehow, they make informed reactions and leave the door open for you to make an informed decision whether or not to purchase the book.

Here’s where I have a confession to make. I usually read a book review, even when I know I’m going to buy a book. I read the review wanting to know what “they” say about a book I’ve already decided to purchase. Lord, help the reviewer who disagrees with me, doesn’t like, or disagrees with a decision I’ve already made to purchase a book. You see, that bothers me too.

That’s not how book reviews are supposed to work. Our minds aren’t usually made up. We don’t know what we’re going to read. My quest for self-affirmation is backwards. If we do know anything about a book, our knowledge is a little sketchy. Maybe we heard something on the radio or saw the author interviewed on TV.  An impartial, well-written book review directs us to what is in the book, what we’ll be getting into, and the intellectual commitments required by engaging this book.

In the wake of the Babylonian Exile, the lives of the Israelites were in chaos. With the religious, social, and cultural bonds which defined them as Israel severed for the time they lived in Babylon, they felt like didn’t know who they were. Simply reoccupying their land wasn’t the answer. Two guys, two of their leaders (Ezra and Nehemiah) realized that unless they could find their footing, events like the Babylonian captivity would keep happening. Unless they were a community, who cared about each other, and realized their futures depend on each other thriving, not just individuals surviving; they’d be someone else’s captives. In the Old Testament we learn this: individuals make it when communities thrive.

How do you bring shattered, disparate, individuals together? Remind them of their common purpose and beliefs. One way to do that is by reading a book. You form a national book club. You read the Bible. This was Ezra’s genius idea. Everybody knows the Bible, right? These are all devout Jews. Wrong and yes. Most of these people haven’t read the book. They need an honest review to help them understand and they need the book.

It was by the Water Gate. That’s always made me laugh. Everyone gathered by the Water Gate to hear what God had to say. In our world, the word Watergate is synonymous with secrets, government conspiracy, and corruption. In the Bible, here in the 8th chapter of Nehemiah, the water gate is the place where God opens up, where no secrets are hidden, and where the witness of the word is available to all. And in echoes of creation itself, the word goes out over the water, over what has become a formless void, to recreate Israel anew. What happens next is really exciting. If we gather by the water gate and step into the formless void, with the people Ezra has called forth, we are stepping into a relationship with the Bible unlike any we’ve ever known.

No one is to be excluded. Men, women, children; everyone can be in this great gathering. Scripture says, “Anyone who could understand what they heard.” That’s anyone who can read (or listen to) a book review, anyone who’s willing to start from wherever they are, and anyone who wants to walk and listen with an open heart and mind. As the Israelites start over, here in Nehemiah 8, we learn this: Hearing and understanding are the keys to forming a community and building a relationship with God. Who are you hearing today? Who do you understand this morning? What have you misunderstood this morning? Are you mishearing? Is it at home, work, school or even here at church? What have we misheard and misunderstood? What do we need to hear and understand to better form our community and build our relationship with God?

I would like to able to tell you that something supernatural occurred; such as at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Holy Spirit descended in a blue flame from the sky, melted faces, people shouted and screamed, they spoke in tongues, danced in the aisles, and had a high old time. I can’t tell you that because it didn’t happen. Here’s what went down. Ezra opened the Torah scroll and read to the people (all those who could understand). Oh, Ezra was on a wooden platform so they could see and hear him better. Do you know what the people did? They went to sleep, right? They passed out from heat stroke? No! They went crazy for public Bible reading! Why were people so enthused?

Look at verse seven. This may be the most important verse in the entire passage. The Levites (I won’t name them all), “helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places. They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting so the people could understand what they heard.” Did you get that? These priests had the job of going out (like good book reviewers) and helping people to understand and interpret what they heard Ezra reading (before they read it themselves). They moved among the crowd to make sure everyone was able to get the point and understand the Instruction Ezra presented. Why? Because hearing and understanding are the keys to community and building a relationship with God.  Ezra realized people simply didn’t know the Torah. He took nothing for granted. He didn’t stand up and berate people with, “In the good old days, in the time of Moses, your great-great-great grandparents knew everything about the Bible.” If he needed to start at square one, he went to square one. What good would it do to play a blame game?  Ezra is trying to tell us: you cannot berate people back to church or back into a relationship with God. We walk with each other on the journey or we will not go at all.  We go in peace or we do not go.

Do not mourn or weep, those would be fighting words in some churches. Good thing I’m quoting the Bible. It is so easy to be overcome with sadness when we are confronted with God’s goodness in our lives. Our tendency is to weep as we account for the good things God has provided in our lives. Part of that is human nature. Ezra calls us out on our weepiness. He’s not one for crying testimonies. Ezra says, “Go have a party, eat unhealthy food”. Then he says give some of your food away to people who don’t have any. Drink wine, break bread, give away food. Is it me or does this sound a bit like Jesus Christ at the last supper? Faith is a celebration; not a race to tell the saddest story of sin and moral depravity.

Echoes of Genesis. Echoes of the Eucharist. God is at work in a beautiful way in this story. My review is this: I want to read more of this book.

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