In a novel entitled One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of a small town in South America. The name of the town was Macondo, and it was surrounded by a swamp, which accounted for its solitude.
One day a little girl wandered into Macondo. She was fleeing her village, where there had been an outbreak of a plague that caused insomnia. A family in Macondo took her in and later noticed that one of their daughters couldn't sleep. The plague had followed the little girl to Macondo.
At first people believed the plague wouldn't be too bad, because if you can't sleep, you have lots of time to do other things. But they soon discovered another telltale symptom of the plague: loss of memory.
People began to forget things: for example, the names of tools they worked with and where they put them. They fought this loss of memory by marking things with their respective names, so that all they had to do was read the inscription to identify the items: table, chair, clock, door, wall, pan, cow, pig, and so on.
Later it occurred to them that they might forget what those things were for. So they made the signs more elaborate. The sign they hung around the neck of a cow read, "This is a cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk."
To ensure that they never forgot where they were, the people erected a sign where the road emerged from the swamp. The sign read, "This is the village of Macondo." And on the main street, where everyone would see it, they erected a larger sign that read, "God exists."
Thus they went on living, Marquez writes, in a reality they captured momentarily in words that described what was most necessary for life. But that reality would be lost forever when the people forgot the meaning of the letters.
The dismal situation in Macondo reminds me of the situation Nehemiah describes in the 8th chapter of the book that bears his name. Centuries earlier, God had given the Israelites some wonderful gifts: a land, security, abundance, prosperity. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has said that the memory of those gifts and that relationship was the glue that bound the Israelites together. It also kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God.
But as the years passed, the Israelites grew careless and cynical about their faith. "Prosperity causes amnesia," Brueggemann says. People with amnesia don't know who they are, what they're expected to do, or to whom they're accountable. This goes a long way toward explaining how the Israelites ended up being overrun and carted off to Babylonia, where they spent half a century in exile. By the time Cyrus the Great told them they could go home, many of them had forgotten most of what they'd known about their own religion.
The Israelites' return was a crushing disappointment. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins. The great temple was a mound of rubble. The countryside was a wasteland. A hard-nosed administrator named Nehemiah and a scribe named Ezra stepped up and organized a series of urban renewal projects that included building a new temple and new city walls.
When the work was finished, everyone in Jerusalem, including the children who were old enough to understand, gathered in the town square. The Israelites were safer now, and they had a place to worship.
But their situation was still bleak. The Persians still dominated and taxed them heavily. External enemies still threatened them. Internal divisions and injustices still set neighbor against neighbor. The Israelites needed guidance and assurance.
They asked Ezra to fetch a scroll he'd brought with him from Babylonia. The scroll contained the first five books of the Bible as we know it. In a moment I'll tell you what happened next. But, first, let me tell you about Uncle Bevel.
Every year at our family reunion Uncle Bevel would open his dog-eared copy of The L.B. Jones Family History and read us a story. He read stories that some of us had never heard and others of us had neglected or forgotten--stories about where our ancestors came from, why they settled in Georgia, what they believed, and how they lived because of what they believed. Uncle Bevel read those stories to us for thirty years. They helped shape our character and form our family values.
Back in Jerusalem, Ezra opened his scroll and began to read its stories--stories of creation, of Noah and the ark, of Abraham and Sara, of Joseph and the coat of many colors, of God releasing the Children of Israel from Egyptian captivity, of Miriam and Moses, of the Ten Commandments and God's other instructions for creating a community.
The stories were written in Hebrew, but by then the Israelites were speaking Aramaic, the language of the Persian Empire. So Ezra translated the stories into the people's everyday language. Meanwhile, thirteen priests circulated among the people to "give instruction in what was read," Nehemiah says, and to "explain the meaning."
That's the point of reading scripture, you know, to get the meaning it has for you. On the way out of church one Sunday a worshiper said, "That was a powerful sermon you preached this morning, pastor. Everything you said applies to somebody I know."
The people in Jerusalem hoped there were connections between Ezra's scroll and their circumstances that would apply to everybody. That's why they asked Ezra to fetch it. That's why he translated it. That's why the priests explained the meaning of it.
And then hundreds of years flaked away and the crowd experienced it. By which, I mean, those former exiles discovered where they were in the story God was writing. They had wandered so far from God and had forgotten so much about their faith that there was a huge gap now between the way God wanted them to live and the way they were living.
A sense of loss and shame overwhelmed them and they broke into tears. Ezra said, "Don't grieve, don't cry. This is a day of remembering who we are and who God is. Go home, prepare a feast, and share it with those who don't have anything. Because this day is holy to God, and the joy of the Lord is your strength."
Nehemiah's account ends with the people celebrating and sharing gifts of food and wine, because their long season of amnesia was over. Their sacred memories were alive again. They could face the hard work that lay ahead assured of God's presence, God's love, God's guidance, and God's strength.
Now, did that really happen? Yes. Could something like that happen again? Sure. Will it happen to us or to anyone we know? I hope so. Because even in our churches we have two or three generations of people who are clueless when it comes to the contents of the Bible.
Maybe they don't realize what the Bible is in the first place. The Bible is a gift. God speaks to us in a variety of ways: through the arts, science, culture, dreams, friends, experience. But the primary way God speaks to us is through the Bible. So the starting point for discovering the truth about God and about ourselves is to open the gift and use it.
For some of us that means taking our Bibles down from wherever they've been gathering dust and beginning to read them. Today would be a good time to start. I recommend you begin with Mark's Gospel. This is the earliest account we have of Jesus' life, and you can read it in less than an hour. Then read Acts, the history of the early church. After that go back and hit the high spots: the stories I've already mentioned, the other Gospels, Paul's letters. If all of this is new to you, start with a translation or a paraphrase that sounds current and conversational, like Eugene Peterson's The Message.
Then seek out knowledgeable believers who can "give you the meaning" of what you're reading. The Bible is not as easy to understand as most people think. You'll be glad to have some help when you're wrestling with difficult or confusing passages. You'll want someone to talk it over with when the Bible disturbs or challenges you. Above all, you'll want to learn how Christians have read the Bible over the last 2,000 years, so you can interpret what you're reading in the light of what we believe about Jesus Christ. He is the lens through which Christians read scripture.
Occasionally someone will come to me and say, "Pastor, I still don't get the point of reading the Bible. Why bother?" When that happens I usually turn to the Bible itself and share something Paul wrote in a letter to his young friend Timothy. In older translations it reads like this: "Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness." But that sounds like a foreign language to most folks and not very inviting.
So lately I've been sharing Brian McLaren's paraphrase. He says the Bible teaches you what's true and right, helps you see where you've gone wrong, guides you on how to get on the right track again, and educates you in the skills of staying on the right path.
You'll know you're getting somewhere when you begin to see yourself in what you're reading and when you begin to involve the Bible in the decisions you make about public and private issues instead of just being led by your own whims and preferences.
Each autumn at our church during a Sunday morning service, we talk about the unique role the Bible can play in our lives. Then we give each rising third grader a Bible that's published especially for children. Every year I slip into the sanctuary about half-an-hour before we begin. I open each Bible and read the inscription to make sure I know how to pronounce each child's name. It's important to get the names right.
This year when I slip into the sanctuary, I think I'll do something new. I think I'll tape a sign on the cover of each book to help the children and their parents "get the meaning" of the gift. The sign will read:
This is a Bible. A Bible is a book filled with stories of people who have met God. Those people are our people. Their stories are our stories. We read their stories because we want to remember who God is, who we are, and what we believe, so that we will know how to live.
Let's pray together: Living and loving God, you have made yourself known to us in many and various ways. We're grateful today for the written Word in which you reveal yourself to us. Keep our eyes open to read it, our ears open to hear it, our minds open to understand it, our hearts open to feel it, and then loosen our energies to act on it. Amen.