Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (27 January 2019)

Nehemiah 8.1-10

JoAnn A. Post

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 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. 

The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, 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.

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 when 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 of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Ten centuries before Christ, King Solomon ordered the building of a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, and to welcome worshippers of the one true God. The temple, built entirely by slave labor, was two football fields in length and ranged from 10 – 20 stories high—an architectural accomplishment difficult to comprehend. That enormous, grand complex stood for 500 years, impervious to its enemies and inviting to God’s people.

But as with all structures and all mighty walls, the temple finally fell. It was first overwhelmed by enemies who dragged Israel’s intelligencia into exile and plundered the temple’s wealth. The flame in the Holy of Holies was extinguished. The enormous wooden gates were burned. And the Torah—the handwritten scroll containing the Word of God—was stolen, silenced for generations.

The buildings then stood empty for a decade until another army came through to destroy it—it took them 30 months to tear it down. But when the invaders finally rode out of town, both the temple and the Jerusalem city walls lay in smoldering ruins.

For the next 70 years, the ruins of Jerusalem were inhabited by wild animals and squatters from outlying areas. But the people of God in exile believed in the promises of God, believed they would one day return. Memories of the temple’s expansive courtyards and soaring balustrades comforted them in the long years as refugees. Dreams of Jerusalem’s bustling markets and mountain top views made them salivate.

Imagine their horror when eventually they returned to their city and their temple. The grand streets were nothing but narrow rocky pathways for goats. The gleaming stones of the city walls had been hauled off by enemies for their own building projects. The unfamiliar faces of frightened strangers peered from hovels carved out of the ruins. And the temple? It was a pile of debris—two football fields long and ten stories high.

A lesser people would have walked away. A lesser people would have shaken their fists at God and found some one, some thing else to worship. But God had promised them a home. And they believed that promise. So they decided to build. Clearing away the carnage, drawing new designs they erected a second temple more elaborate than the first.

How long did it take? As long as it took to build the Great Wall of China the Great Pyramid, and the Statue of Liberty combined. The people of God labored over the foundation, walls and holy spaces of the Second Temple for almost 50 years.

But still they could not stop. The temple needed to be protected.

Enter Governor Nehemiah, a portion of whose story we read today. Nehemiah was a builder; a builder of walls. Under his watch, 120 years after the first temple fell, the rebuilt city and the restored temple were safely enclosed inside (seemingly) un-breachable walls. In just 52 days.

And that is where we find them today. In the shadow of the temple, protected by walls a meter thick, crammed together like fans at Lollapalooza, the people of God gathered in the midday sun. To hear, for the first time in four generations, the holy and life-giving Word of God.

I love this story. I once did a six-week preaching series on these ten verses (you dodged that bullet). Can’t you just see it?

How did the gathered assembly receive this recently-recovered word? Did they admire the lambskin parchment scrolls as though they were museum artifacts? Did they debate the proper inflection of the ancient words, or murmur that “this sure is taking a long time?”

No, as one body—43,360 men and women, 7,337 slaves and 245 singers (NEH 7.66ff)—they came to their feet. Their hands rose in the air, reaching for the words as though they were raindrops in the desert. They bowed their faces to the ground. And as Ezra, the priest, read and his brother priests circulated among the crowd to answer questions, the flood gates opened. The people of God wept rivers of tears, salty as the Red Sea which once had saved them. Tears of remorse and regret, shame and sorrow, longing and lament.

Because for two generations in exile and another two rebuilding, the Word of God had been silent.

But today, on the first day of the seventh month, the Word of God rained down on them like Noah’s cleansing flood. And all they could do was weep.

The reading went on for hours, from early morning to midday. And when it was completed—Ezra hoarse from shouting and the people weak from weeping—Governor Nehemiah, the builder of the wall in whose shadow they had taken refuge, stood and addressed the crowd.

He needed to tell them what to do next. They had never before heard the Word of God. It was a foreign language. What were they to do with it, about it?

He had four instructions:

First? Get out of here! Go home now that you have one.

Second? Gorge yourselves on the fattest meat, the richest wines, the gooiest desserts.

Third? Take a portion of your feast to the poor and those too weak to have stood in the hot sun.

And fourth? Stop crying. Rejoice, not in your own strength or stamina or architectural accomplishments, but rejoice in the strength of God whose Word, unlike any wall, abides forever.

Do you suppose that Jesus’ hometown crowd, gathered some 400 years later, received his words so eagerly, that they wept so bitterly? (Luke 4.14-21) No, Jesus’ generation had never known a time when they could not worship freely, discuss openly, pray publicly. To gather for the reading of the Word was ordinary, even obligatory for some.

As Jesus stood up to read, from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, they did not stand. They did not raise their hands. They did not bow their heads. They certainly didn’t weep. They observed. And analyzed. And expected. After all, Jesus had been wowing the crowds in the nearby towns. What would he do for them, his neighbors and childhood friends?

Jesus read really well, apparently. And then he sat. Not to preach, as they expected. But because he was the sermon, he was the word, he was the object of Isaiah’s affection who would enrich the poor and free the prisoners and restore sight to the blind and lift the burdens of the oppressed. Of course, he didn’t say that. He didn’t have to. He had just read that—about himself. He was the living, breathing, unbreachable sermon.

They were momentarily stunned to silence. And if you want to know what happened next, you’ll have to come back next week.

But here’s where the story of Nehemiah and Nazareth coalesce. The synagogue-goers in Nazareth did eventually imitate their ancestors in Jerusalem. They leapt to their feet—to surround Jesus. They raised their hands—against him. They bowed their heads—like bulls about to charge.

Jesus, the Word of God, inspired not delight or devotion, tears or terror, but rage. How dare he claim to be the Expected One, the Fulfiller of Promise, the Word for which they had waited?

How will it be with us?  We who occupy a grand building, who feast on the finest of foods, who can pick up the word of God any time we please?

Nehemiah would shoo us out of this building dancing—to eat and drink, to share our joy with the poor. After all, even that master builder of walls relied not on the stability of bricks and mortar, but on the strength of God.

Week after week, like the people of Nazareth, we are blessed with the word of God, falling gently on our ears. Will we receive it with raised hands and tear-filled eyes, or clenched fists and tight lips?

My friends, the Word of God is in our midst, a gift that cannot be silenced. A gift that cannot be destroyed. A gift that will not leave us alone, but will send us—dancing and singing into a world that longs to hear it in their own ears.

 

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