Many years ago, I had the opportunity to worship with a rather “high church” Episcopal congregation. When the time came for the reading of the gospel lesson, a procession of worship leaders — led by acolytes bearing candles and the cross, dressed in ornate robes, and accompanied by thunderous organ — moved from the altar to the center of the sanctuary. There, all the people stood as the Bible was held aloft and the scripture was read by the officiating priest. We Baptists might like to think of ourselves as “People of the Book”; but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a service of worship in which the glory and holiness of God’s Word was made more evident.
I think of that scene whenever I read today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:73-8:18), for many of the elements are the same. A parade of worship leaders underscores the solemnity and significance of the occasion. God’s Word is lifted up and honored by all the people, who stand and listen attentively as it is read. But even more telling than the “external observances” of the occasion are the “internal responses” that it generates. The people are so convicted of sin and so overwhelmed by the reality of worshiping in Jerusalem after many years of exile that they’re weeping — so much so that Nehemiah and the other leaders need to remind them: “This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (verse 10). The people are rushing to obey what they’ve heard; and specifically, they’re rushing to celebrate the blessings of God’s Word and to share those blessings with others. And perhaps most meaningful of all, the people are filled with joy. Right near the end of the passage we’re told: “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it (the Feast of Booths) like this. And their joy was very great” (verse 17).
How is God’s Word being honored and lived among us, both individually and corporately? Do we revere it, by giving it our time and attention? Are we convicted by its holiness and overwhelmed by its promise? Does it bring us joy — the kind of joy that gets expressed in obedience and blessing others?
We might not decide to stand and hold our Bibles aloft when we read God’s Word today (then again, it couldn’t hurt). But may we truly be “People of the Book,” who honor the scriptures and live them — and who know the joy of the hope that they convey.