Gathered around the Word
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:1-3,5,6,8-10 ESV)
You get a sense of what people really believe if you can watch them secretly for a period of time. I have begun teaching my pastoral theology course at Westfield House and in the first session we look at who a pastor is and what is he supposed to do. Churches around the world say all sorts of things about ministers – much of it similar but sometimes different – and yet, as I suggested to the students, you will only really understand what the churches mean by all their words when you see what they actually do – how they ordain, what jobs pastors are required to do, and how the church deals with them in conflict.
Consider Holy Communion for a moment. We have agreed in Bible Study that all Lutheran Churches say they teach the real presence of Jesus and yet we’re also aware of different nuances or emphases here. I have suggested that if you want to get an idea of what a church really believes behind the words, then watch what happens after the distribution or after the worship service and how the elements are treated and disposed of.
We accept that there should be congruence between words and deeds and I am saying that variations of deeds actually ‘fine tunes’ what the words really mean to the person or people involved.
Our first reading sets the scene of people wanting to hear the Word of God and responding to it. The place is Jerusalem – after the first destruction of the temple and city but now there’s been a return of the exiles and the rebuilding has commenced – not without its problems – but the altar is built and the rebuilding of the city walls is just complete. This event happens at the Water Gate which opens onto the temple mount.
The time is the first day of the seventh month – the equivalent of Jan 1st – a new year is beginning – this is the feast of trumpets – calling for attention – hearing God’s Word. In this first month there will also occur the Day of Atonement – where God deals with sins – specifically those of the priests as blood and substitution atones for the sins of the people and God remains dwelling with his people. A few days after that the feast of tabernacles begins – 7 days – living in booths, temporary shelters, tabernacles – and recalling that God looked after his people when they were in tents in the wilderness for 40 years. Secure now behind defendable walls, the exiles gather for the first time in over 70 years in relative safety in Jerusalem and want to hear the Word of God.
Nehemiah describes it as Law of Moses – we would say the Pentateuch – the first 5 books of the Old Testament – and, as Lutherans, we would say that they were hearing Law and Gospel. The Law of Moses – the Torah – did have rules and regulations, what God expected, his standards, and how the people should obey but it also told the story of God’s grace, his rescue, his faithfulness, his mercy, his mighty deeds – and so the people were taken back in time to creation – and to Noah – and Abraham – and Jacob and his 12 sons – and slavery into Egypt – and Moses and God’s rescue – and his creation of them as his special people for he would dwell with them in the tabernacle and later the temple through the worship he had established. And they would also hear of disobedience, murder, unfaithfulness, doubt, jealousy, grumbling, a calf that is golden, and a litany or cycle of sin and rebellion.
When Ezra the priest reads he is right to lead the praise of God. God is always gracious and rescuing even when he is punishing and certainly when he is saving and helping. And when the people listen, take in, digest, think through what I think was the incontrovertible pattern and truth about human rebellion – remember these people were the first after the exile back in Jerusalem; an exile brought about by the people’s sins that had built up so much that even the land needed a break – in this case 70 years – from all the evil on it (Jeremiah 25) and it strikes me that they weep because of the sheer futility of the human condition – we sin, we have sinned, and we will sin again – it is definitely understandable that such a realisation leads to tears of despair. What hope is there? What’s the point even if there is a new start happening?
But Nehemiah says, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
When you hear law and Gospel, when the themes that ring in your ears are sin and grace, and when the Gospel is the good news of the gracious God of the Exodus, even if you feel that things will only get worse again, sooner or later, then trust that news for now and go and celebrate God’s goodness. The celebration is not because we’re trying again, we’ll do better next time, but because the rescuing God produces joy – in the victory, in the relief that we don’t truly get what we deserve. And that joy strengthens us for tomorrow – as the struggle resumes again to be God’s faithful people.
Of course failure continues. The descendants of the Exiles said that they trusted God’s Word. In fact they were scrupulous about doing the right thing before God, waiting for the Messiah, believing that their obedience would hasten the kingdom of God’s arrival that they added stacks of rules and regulations to their piety – and everyone else’s! – and they also tried to push off a cliff a local boy from Nazareth – well, a man really – a carpenter, the son of a carpenter, who declared to them that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and he was bringing about the Lord’s favour. These descendants of the Exiles said they believed the law and the prophets and the psalms and yet at Nazareth in his home town they tried to lynch Jesus!
Eventually humanity would get him, string him up on a cross and he would cry out in such God forsakenness that we will be unable to fully come to grips with his suffering which was so intense that time becomes meaningless and 3 days might be 70 years and could well be eternity. No gracious God there for him but his empty tomb declares once and for all, clearly and unambiguously, that there is a gracious God for you!!!
In Jesus we find the perfect harmony between word and deed – as we see his entire life totally centred on doing his Father’s will – not as a robot – but as a human being tempted just as we are – yet who is focused on loving us and being obedient to the Father. We know it doesn’t look much – ultimately the epiphany – the revelation is a cross – and today it is words and water and bread and wine – but God’s words and deeds remain in perfect harmony for they still do what he says they do – re-create, born again (birth again?), forgive sins, heal bodies, strengthen faith, give hope, produce joy.
Are you an exile – returning to God after time away? Are you despairing of the sins that have got you licked rather than the other way round? Does God’s Word make you shake your head in worry? Then come to this place and enjoy choice food and drink – bread and wine – for this day is sacred to the Lord – for the joy of the Lord – what Jesus has done for you – is and always will be your strength – for today and another week out in the world.
Gathered around God’s word we are fine tuned so that our words and deeds ring true – as we share the good things of God – physical and spiritual gifts – and as we rejoice in Jesus and are strengthened by him for another day and for eternity.
- Nehemiah 8:1 - 3
- Nehemiah 8:5 - 6
- Nehemiah 8:8 - 10