Sermon by the Rev. Andrew S. Rollins
January 21, 2007 (Epiphany 3C)
Text: Nehemiah 8:2 – 10
Title: “Come As You Are”
Were you not impressed with how well Susan handled today’s
the Old Testament reading? That has got to be the most difficult reading in the
whole lectionary. And that’s the passage that I want us to consider this
morning: “Nehemiah and the
This is an ancient, dusty story. We almost never hear Nehemiah read in church. We have to cover some 2500 years to get back to the days of this Old Testament story. That’s a lot of cultural distance to cover. In the Book of Nehemiah, the priest reads the Bible all day long, (from early morning until midday). And people were all ears! That’s your first clue that we’re in a different time and place.
But I’m getting ahead of my story.
A Dusty Old Story
This is what happened in the story. The Jews had been in
The Law here probably meant the first five books of the Bible, the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And they the WHOLE LAW. – or at least a large portion of it. The reading took all day long.
And after the Book of the Law was read, the priests interpreted it so that everyone could understand it: [All those names that Susan read] . . . helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. [When I ‘lay down the law’ to my children at home I’m always careful to ask, “Now, do you understand the rules? Is there anything about what I’m commanding that is unclear to you?]
But then, something that strikes me as rather odd happened. When the people
Why Do They Weep?
Why do the people weep when they hear the Law? After all, the Law is a good thing. According to the Old Testament, the law is a good thing. According to the New Testament, the Law is ‘holy, just, and good’ (Romans 7:12). Without laws, any society would dissolve into anarchy. So why weren’t they happy to hear the Law? Why was their response to weep?
I think that they wept because they were overcome with how
badly they had failed. They’d been away in
That was 2500 years ago. But the Law functions precisely the same way today, in your life and in mine. Which is why I think it’s worth paying attention to this story. The Law alone always crushes and paralyzes. The Law crushes and paralyzes because it merely tells us where we have fallen short. The Law is ‘holy, just, and good’, but all it can do is show us where we’ve failed. Alone, the law doesn’t and can’t offer us any help to change.
Of course, I’m not being original here. That is what the apostle Paul says the law. In Romans, Paul put it this way: For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin (3:20). Alone, the Law simply gives us ‘knowledge of sin.’ That was true then and it’s true now. It was true of biblical law; it’s true about any law at any time.
Let me try to put this in terms of your own life because I know that this is something that you’re very familiar with.
Crushed by Good Advice
Have you ever felt crushed by advice? It’s like the fathers I see at Little League trying to teach their sons how to hit the baseball: “Son, bend your knees. Get that elbow up. Now, lower your chin. Raise the bat. Turn your shoulders. Now, watch the ball. No, son, watch the ball!” The poor kid is completely paralyzed. The advice (the law) is good -- ‘holy, just, and good”. If little Johnny is going to play major league ball, he’ll have to get all those things right (plus take steroids!). But – alone -- all that ‘good advice’, or law, is paralyzing.
Paralyzed by Expectations (6:00 service)
Or, have you ever been paralyzed by expectations? We watched the movie Little Miss Sunshine last week? (At the moment it is my favorite movie.) The father in that movie illustrates what I’m talking about. Richard is a failed motivational speaker. He’s always telling people (his family included): “There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers. Which one are you?” He hawks his motivational system of “Seven Steps to Being a Winner” and everyone hates it and everyone hates him. His son, Dwayne, is has become a fanatical follower of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence. It’s the only way he can escape his father’s paralyzing expectations.
I Do, I Do
Or, have you ever had anyone list all the things you’re doing wrong? This sometimes happens when couples fight. There’s an old Broadway music called “I Do, I Do!” that I grew up listing to because my parents loved it. In one scene, this married couple has a fight that begins when the husband presents his wife with ‘a little list’ of her shortcomings. He sings, “Nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s perfect. I am human, so are you./ Nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s perfect. Here is what we ought to plan to do./ Let’s make a list of irritating habits that we think the other person has./ And when we’ve found our irritating habits we can correct them. As for example/ Now please don’t be offended just because these things exist. I have taken the little liberty of making up a little list.” Then, he goes into this long list of all the things that he wants her to change about herself. The climax of the list is, “Every night since we’ve been wed, you’ve worn cold cream into bed./ Every night beneath the sheet, must you look like Trick or Treat!” After he’s shared his list of all her faults, it just so happens that she has ‘a little list’ already prepared as well. The whole thing erupts into a blowout.
Why don’t we change when we’re given a list of our faults? The Bible speaks to this. Alone, the law doesn’t carry with it the ability to obey it. A law alone (any law) carries no power to change. The Law (the list) may be ‘holy, true, and good’. But we can only handle so much Truth before we fall apart.
Tell me the truth. I’d like to know. Have you ever really changed because someone told you, category by category, all of your faults? I’d be very surprised to hear anyone claim that that’s really when they need. Alone, the law only crushes and paralyzes.
We need something else if we’re going to change.
The Word of Grace
But there is hope.
Back to Nehemiah for a moment . . . When the people of
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” In other words, “You can go on your way without mourning, based on who God is, not of who you are.” The story ends with Grace. Grace means “God loves you anyway” based on who He is, not who you are (writes Paul Zahl, in his newest book). You have fallen terribly short. Yet, God has extended his love to you anyway. That’s what happens in the Nehemiah passage. The people fall unbearably short of the standard of the Law. But God has extended his love to them anyway, because of who He is, not because of who they are.
What Jesus Did
That ancient Old Testament story from Nehemiah is just a ‘shadow’ (Hebrews) of what more fully revealed in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus never said that the law was not ‘holy, just, and good.’ In fact, Jesus tightens the Law. You’ll remember he said, I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:27). He said not one letter, one iota, one stroke of a letter of the law was to be changed (Matthew 5:18). But then Jesus extended grace to those who were crushed and paralyzed by the law. He said, I have come to call not the righteous but sinners (Mark 17). Jesus perfectly extends God’s grace to all of those crushed and paralyzed by the law.
This contrast between law and grace is a constant theme in the Bible, and it’s constantly being worked out in your life, and in the life of the church, the life here at St. Alban’s.
Jahn and Erika Kallis
I’ll close by trying to bring this even more down to earth. I can talk about grace all I want from the pulpit, but it matters little if people don’t actually experience grace from Christians. Unfortunately, we Christians are often the last people to actually extend real grace to people.
But that was not the case here this weekend. I was inspired by the Christians of St. Alban’s this weekend. Erika Swenson and Jahn Kallis were married here last night. Erika has sung in the choir here for a long time. Everything was well-organized and on-track until Erika’s mom went into the hospital at Christmas. So Jahn and Erika cared for her all through the holidays. Then, one week ago, their caterer for the rehearsal dinner backed out on them. (The rehearsal dinner and reception were scheduled to be held here.) Can you imagine the kind of pressure that would put on a bride, one week before her wedding? It was crushing, paralyzing.
But this is what happened. Several folks from St. Alban’s
stepped forward and offered to put on the rehearsal dinner, start to finish.
This did not originate with me, in any way. I was simply informed that it had
happened. On Friday night, there were probably 15 – 20 St. Alban’s people her
putting on a rehearsal dinner for Erika, Jahn, and their families, all from the
There was a great moment when I was standing in line at the buffet with all of Erika’s family, “de Swenson’s, vere Swede’s from Nurf Dekurda”. Laid out before them was a feast of “de gumbo, de shrimps, de crawfish, de bread puddin’ . . . .” They had no idea what it was. And this woman said to me, “This is really amazing that this church did all of this for them”
That made me ask myself, “Why are people so amazed to experience grace from Christians?” “Why are people so blown away to find grace within the walls of the church?”
Obviously, they expected the church to handle the situation differently. We could’ve said, “Erika and Jahn, we’ll bail you out here, but it’s gonna cost you. Shrimp is expensive. Cooking for 40 requires a lot of advanced labor. If you want to us the wine glasses, that’s extra. And, of course, this is last minute, so there’s a charge for that. Fifteen workers, ten hours of work, plus it’s the weekend. This is gonna add up.” And, according to the letter of the law, we’d be well within our rights. I could make a ‘holy, just, and good’ case for that.
You and I entered this banquet by God’s grace alone. Our invitation read, “Come As You Are.” There was no other way for you and me to get through in door. Grace came to us in the moment that we were crushed and paralyzed. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t charge for weddings. Or that florist’s and musicians and caterers shouldn’t be paid. But who are we to give people the law apart from grace? I have a friend who, on this topic of law and grace, writes that most churches should post a sign above their entrance that reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
I think we’d rather our sign to read, “Come As You Are.” Wouldn’t that be better? Wouldn’t it? After all, that’s what our invitation read.