January 27, 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
In the days of Nehemiah, the people who had returned from exile and the people who had been left behind in the desolate land started the long and difficult process of rebuilding their lives, their communities, their homes, their place and ultimately rebuilding the temple.
Nehemiah was the cup-bearer to the king of Persia, a Jew exiled far from home but in a position of power. When he hears of the devastation of Jerusalem, he petitions the king and gets permission to go and rebuild.
This rebuilding is a difficult task. They must learn to get along, both those who had been taken and now returned and those who had been left. They must work together to defend Jerusalem. When Nehemiah sees how even his own people are oppressing each other, he commands that all debts and mortgages be canceled, and they do so.
The restoration of Jerusalem is not simply buildings and walls and temple. The work they are doing is to restore the people to their covenant with God. It is hard to covenant with God while charging our neighbor interest and lording it over one another.
So we come to chapter eight. And Ezra, a priest and scribe, one learned in the Torah, comes before the entire assembled people. And from a wooden pulpit he reads to them the Law of Moses, the Torah, the covenant. And the Levites and scribes and priests are among the people, helping them to understand what they are hearing. For the scrolls were in Hebrew, and many of the people now spoke other languages. And even if the language was intelligible, we often need help with the meaning, do we not?
And the people weep.
In good Protestant fashion we might assume that they find themselves convicted of their sins and their unfaithfulness and the weeping is like unto the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the repentant.
I think that the weeping has to do with the human reaction to hearing good news when one has had nothing but bad news for so long. What they hear are the stories of a people called by God to travel from a foreign land until they find the land promised by God. A people called out of Egypt, out of bondage, out of slavery, and into the freedom that the covenant of God makes real.
When we hear the Ten Commandments, how often do we think of them as a checklist? Murder, steal, adultery, nope! Okay, I did covet, and I am still lousy about Sabbath-keeping, but maybe God grades on a curve…
When they heard the Ten Commandments, read as the alternative to the brickyards of Pharaoh, they knew immediately that they were the ones who had been in those brickyards. Whether left to fend for themselves in Jerusalem or serving in Persia or even being the cupbearer for the king in the Palace of Susa, this was their story. The Commandment to have no God but Yahweh was a relief from the harsh priests of Persia. The Commandment to keep Sabbath and make it holy was a relief from the work without ceasing for their masters in exile. The Commandments against coveting and stealing were a relief from the scrounging and doing whatever was possible to scrape by, including selling each other out and charging usury interests.
They wept because for the first time in a long time, they remembered that they were children of God. And if it has been a while since we have heard it and believed it and known it to be true, when we finally do hear and believe and know, then we will probably weep, too.
Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to
him 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.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he stands up in the synagogue, as any male adult Jew would have rights to do, and he read from scripture. He did not pick a passage of comfort, of settledness, of “aren’t we all happy in the Lord?” He reads from the prophet Isaiah, one of the prophets of the exile, speaking to a people taken away and a people left.
But in this prophet of the exile, we hear words of what God has done, what God will do, what God is doing here and now:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
This is what God does. This is the basis of our faith. How many here have been released – from shame, from following the ways of death, from addiction, from fear, from illness, from you name it?
How many of us have begun to see ourselves not as our accomplishments or our credentials or our status, but as children of God?
How many of us have been liberated from the things that say we are less than a child of God, from the things that deny the love of God in our lives?
How many of us have been the poor and the poor in spirit until we heard the Good News?
For this is what God does. God makes a way out of no way. God releases the Holy Spirit to anoint us to speak good news and set people free: in the days of Moses, in the days of return from exile, in the days of Jesus, and today.
Celebrate your release, your healing, your place in the love of God, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
And then share it with those around you. Our world needs good news. Our neighbors need good news. Our families need good news. And we have some to offer.
Thanks be to God.