3 Epiphany Proper C3                          
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Nehemiah  8:1-3; 5-6; 8-10 Sermon                          
January 24, 2010

Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
51 "Earth Has Many A Noble City"
252 "O Word Of God Incarnate"
537 "O Master Let Me Walk With Thee"
554 "Am I A Soldier Of The Cross?"


TEXT:  (vs. 5-8) "5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, 'Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read."

            This morning, I'm going to mention two words; and with only those two words, I'm guessing that many of you will be able to identify that to which I'm referring.  Ready?  Okay; the two words are:  "four score."  That's it, just the words "four score."  Does anybody have any clue as to what I'm thinking?  Do those words sound the least bit familiar to you?

            It has nothing to do with scoring two safeties in football, nor does it have anything to do with scoring two slam-dunks in basketball.  That's a score of four.  Most of you have correctly identified this as the very first two words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. 

            It was on the 19 day of November, 1863, at the dedication ceremony of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that Abraham Lincoln delivered his infamous speech.    "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."   The speech lasted just over two minutes, and has become known as the greatest speech in American history.

            Being able to identify a whole speech just by the two opening words is quite an amazing thing actually.  It's most likely because we don't use the term "score" in this sense very much anymore.  A "score" is a unit of measure meaning "twenty" (in this case, twenty years), like "decade" is a unit of measure meaning a period of ten years.  But not everybody readily knows that meaning of the word "score."  We're much more likely to define "score" as what we write down on a pad of paper during a card game, or the figures posted on the scoreboard at a sporting event.

            So why didn't President Lincoln just say "Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?"  Wouldn't that have been clearer and easier to understand?  Well perhaps it would; however would you have been able to identify Lincoln's Gettysburg address as easily if I had just given you the two words, "eighty-seven" instead of "four score?"  I sincerely doubt it.

            There's a certain uniqueness to this speech; however the opening line wouldn't mean anything to you if you didn't know what "four score" meant.  If you didn't know this, then Lincoln could have opened his speech with "Mary had a little lamb" for as much good as it would have done you.

            If we look at the Bible, specifically the King James Version of the Bible, Psalm chapter 90 verse 10 says, "10The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away."   This verse, which is dealing with mankind's limited time on this earth, is referring to a person who has attained the age of 70 or 80 years.

            Or here's a quote from Revelation chapter 13 verse 18:    "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six." That's the number of the antichrist talked about in Revelation, which we know to be the number six-hundred sixty-six.  But here again is a reference to "score" meaning "twenty;" and if you didn't know that, then this particular verse would not mean a whole lot to you.

            It was during this past Advent that I tried a little "spur of the moment" experiment.  During our worship service, we read Psalm 16 responsively; and since we read it out of the hymnal, it was from the King James version of the Bible.  Verse 7 says, "7I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons."  So as we were standing around visiting after the service, I asked the question, "Does anybody know what the word "reins" means?"  I even grabbed a hymnal and read the passage again.  Nobody knew the answer.

            The word "reins" (spelled like a horse's reins) is an old word meaning "kidneys."  This was the word the King James translators used to refer to "inward parts."  It's used some fifteen times in the King James Bible.

            I've used these two instances to introduce our text for today from the book of the prophet Nehemiah.  Our Old Testament Lesson for today is recorded in Chapter 8.  It's in this section that Ezra the priest is speaking to God's people on behalf of God himself.  Ezra reads from the Holy Scriptures, and then in effect gives them a sermon.  Verse 8 says, "8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read."  So the people not only needed to hear what God was saying, but they also had to clearly understand it as well.  God didn't want them to just have the ability to parrot words; these were words that they needed to fully comprehend and take to heart.  Things needed to be clear for them.

            Making things clear and understandable is one of the things that the Church needs to always remember.  God is not locked away in a dusty closet someplace; rather he is among us as our God and we are his people.  God also speaks to us through the living Word of Holy Scripture, and not some "dead letter" that has outlived its usefulness.

            The one precedent that God has set, is that he speaks in a language that people can readily understand.  In the Old Testament, the language of the Jewish worship was Hebrew.  Every Jew knew it, so that's the way God communicated.  On the occasion where God directly addressed both a Gentile and Jewish audience as in the Book of Daniel chapters 2-7, then Aramaic was used, because both Jew and Gentile could readily understand it.

            If we go now to the New Testament, God chose to use Greek as the language.  In those days, there were numerous different languages in use amongst the people.  However, Greek was the language of trade and commerce.  The type of Greek that we find in the New Testament is Koine Greek, or common Greek, the language of the street.  The New Testament was written in a language that the majority could both understand and comprehend.

            And if that wasn't enough, we have the account of Pentecost recorded for us in Acts chapter 2.  Verses 6-8 read: "6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?"            God indeed communicated his Word in tongues and languages that people could readily understand. 

            Biblical translations into other languages is nothing new at all.  Several hundred years before the time of Christ, the Old Testament Jewish Scriptures were translated into Koine, or common Greek.  This work is called the Septuagint, which means the "work of the seventy."  Tradition has it that it took seventy scholars to do this work.  The tremendous benefit of the Septuagint, was that it provided the Gentile Christian converts, who didn't know Hebrew, with a copy of the Old Testament that they could read and understand.  The ancient prophecies concerning Christ became very real for them.

            As we continue through history, a notable translation is the Vulgate, which is the Bible translated into Latin.  From this have come two Roman Catholic Latin to English translations of the Bible: The Douay-Rhimes version (the New Testament in 1582 and the Old Testament in 1610), and the New Confraternity Version of 1941.  These are the two historical versions; there have been others since that time.

            Of course we cannot forget Dr. Martin Luther's place in all of this.  When Luther sequestered himself in Wartburg Castle in 1521-1522, he began translating the Bible into German.  To help him with his work, he made frequent visits into the surrounding towns to listen how the people spoke.  Certainly Dr. Luther took the words of our text for today very seriously.  As far as he was able, he wanted people to hear the Gospel in a way that they would readily understand.  The result was the publication of Luther's German Bible in 1534.

            One of the things that greatly increased the number of Biblical translations was the invention of the printing press and moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1435.  Prior to this, all books had to be copied by hand.

            I could spend all day on the various English translations of the Bible, but I'll give you a brief overview.  The first English Bible was John Wycliffe's translation in the early 1400's, slightly pre-dating the printing press.  Then came William Tyndale, a contemporary of Luther's, who published a translation in 1525.  Then Miles Coverdale finished the Old Testament translation of Tyndale, and also did some editing.  The result was the Great Bible of 1539.  Then in 1560, in Geneva Switzerland, under the leadership of John Calvin, a new English translation emerged known as the Geneva Bible. 

            In 1558, the English published the Bishop's Bible; however because of its high cost, the general public still used the Geneva Bible, which was readily available.

            As the dawn of the 17th Century approached, King James I ascended to the throne of England.  47 of the most prominent scholars of the day were assembled to work on a new translation.  The result of that is the King James version of the Bible, completed in 1611.  Few people realize that what we know now as the King James version is the fourth rendition of the text.  As English spellings became standardized and as flaws were discovered, revisions were made to the King James version in 1618, 1629, and 1638.

            Certainly we hold the King James version of the Bible in high regard.  The unfortunate part of all this, is that there are many words that have either changed meaning, or that we simply don't understand according to 21st century English.  I even have encountered a website that is a "King James Dictionary" site that contains over 800 such words.

            Today, many translations have made their way to the forefront--some good, and some not-so-good ones.  Here at Mighty Fortress, we have been using the New International Version for the most part; however you will hear me quote and use the King James version from time-to-time.  Then there's the New King James version, the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, etc.  At our Bible Studies, we have a variety of translations in use, which makes for a great comparison study opportunity.

            Personally, when I was in Seminary, we were taught to never completely trust a translation.  That's why we had to learn Greek and Hebrew, so we could read the Scriptures in their original languages.  Regardless of how good a translation is, it is still a translation.  When a person is serious about what the Bible says, then serious study is required.  This is the living Word of our living God we are talking about.

            All of this begets one huge question: "why?"  Why do we put such importance upon all of this?  Why is it important for us to have a Bible that's both accurate and easy for us to understand?  The Apostle John as he closes his Gospel says in chapter 20 verse 31: "31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

            It boils down to Jesus.  I've often said that the Bible is like two arrows--it either points ahead to, or back to Christ, who is at the center of everything.  In John chapter 5 verse 39 Jesus says: "...These are the Scriptures that testify about me." 

            As sinners, we look to the Bible for hope and life.  God has clearly shown us to be sinful humans, who are members of an entire sinful race.  We are plagued with jealousy, anger, greed, lust, and so many things.  And when it comes to the Bible, we are really plagued with doubt.  Did God really say that?  Did he really mean what he said?  Is there no righteousness in me at all?  How can someone the likes of me inherit eternal life in heaven?

            The answer is all wrapped up in one word, and that word is Jesus.  The Bible tells us that if we believe in Jesus our Saviour, then our sins will be forgiven and completely removed from us.  When the Bible's focus is directly pointed at Jesus, then we need to see him clearly.  We need to know him the best way we can.  Knowing Jesus as our Saviour isn't just a religion; rather it is a relationship.  Like any relationship, we need to be listening to what he says to us.  He listens to us in prayer, and he speaks to us in the Bible.  That's our line of communication we have with our Saviour.  God has always made it a point to speak to us in words we can understand, in spite of what the devil does to silence him.  The devil likes nothing better than to see a Bible collecting dust on a shelf.  That's the way he tries to silence the voice of God.  That's what he does to try to separate us from our Saviour.

            My uncle Max who lived in California (he's passed on now) used to get up at 5 o'clock every morning to do his Bible reading.  For him, it was quiet and peaceful.  I don't know what translation he used, but I do know that he read his Bible from cover to cover many times.  And as much as he read it, he always said that every time he did, he always learned something he didn't know.

            I don't know what kind of Bible study you do, but I encourage you to do it.  I've heard people complain that they start reading through the entire Bible in Genesis, and then they get bogged down further along when they get to all of those genealogies, or the finer points of the ceremonial law.  Or I've heard people complain that they can't understand all of the complicated words.

            Here are some suggestions:  First, get ahold of a faithful translation you can easily understand.  In my capacity as your pastor, I can help you in this area.  Second, if you want to read through the whole Bible, try starting in the New Testament.  Read a chapter a day.  In less than a month, you'll have finished reading all of Matthew's Gospel.

            Or you can purchase one of those "Bible in a Year" books that are available at almost any bookstore.  They combine readings from various parts of the Bible on a daily schedule, so that you can read it entirely in a year on a regular daily schedule.

            We all have a faith that needs nurturing.  Our lives need direction.  We need hope and assurance.  God does this through his Word.  He shows us our sin; but most importantly he shows us our Saviour, so that by believing in him, we might have eternal life in his Name.