A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, January 24. 2016
So when is the last time you heard a sermon on a text from Nehemiah? I know I’ve used Habakkuk before but I don’t recall ever preaching from Nehemiah. To be honest, I had to use the index even to find it. I was looking among the minor prophets, but Nehemiah actually comes earlier, among the texts purporting to carry the history of the Jewish people. I am embarrassed to admit the faux pas, especially since my father wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Historicity of Ezra.” Anyway, I found this text to tell a fascinating tale, one worth our consideration this morning.
As we keep discovering in Bible study, much of Hebrew scripture was written down and codified during or after the Babylonian exile. When we study texts, we usually have to discern whether they are situated pre-, post- or in the midst of exile. There is no doubt that Ezra and Nehemiah are post-exile. Basically they tell the story of the return to Judah and restoration of Jerusalem under the rule of Artaxerxes, king of Persia in 445 BCE. Some 49,000 Jews are allowed to return from Babylon, now ruled by the Persians. Nehemiah, who has been serving as the king’s cup-bearer, is appointed the governor and given responsibility for the restoration. The scribe and priest, Ezra is appointed the religious leader among the returnees.
The time of reconstruction was not easy. Kathleen O’Connor writes that “Ezra and Nehemiah preside over a community in severe conflict, dispute, and fragmentation.” She says, “The future of the people is in serious doubt. Enemies attack from outside, but even more disruptively internal disagreements threaten to undermine the community’s future. The people form factions about who is in and who is out, who should govern, how the temple can be rebuilt, how Jerusalem can be reestablished in safety and peace.” She concludes, “The question of whether or not the Jews can revivify life together and reclaim their identity as a worshiping people is an urgent matter of life and death. Like all communities that undergo military invasion and cultural breakdown, their identity has come unraveled” (Kathleen O’Connor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 267).
We live in such a secure settled place and time, it may be difficult for us to imagine the situation in which these people found themselves. They had been ripped from their home and carried to a foreign land where they had had a hundred years or more to acclimate. As difficult as it might have been to sing God’s songs in a strange land, they had undoubtedly heard stories of their homeland and been schooled in their religious traditions as much as possible. With pilgrims and pioneers of every age, there must have been something in those ancient stories and traditions that lured these particular people away from the comforts of Babylon to a place they had only heard about it and which they knew lay in ruins. We know all the descendants of the exiles did not return. Has anyone here ever felt that sort of adventurous pull to strike from the comforts of a familiar place to start over in a strange place that needed to be restored from rubble? It makes me think of those folk who are eager to help colonize Mars or, more likely, refugees and immigrants who long for freedom and a better life at the same time the long for lost home.
You can imagine the sort of hardships and tensions these people might have faced. In these ancient accounts, Ezra and Nehemiah must have provided exemplary leadership to pull these people together and finish the work. That is where today’s text brings us. To the relief of everyone, the hard labor and contention in the community are in the past. Now is a time to come together and celebrate. Can you recall some time in your own life when you’ve been through a difficult process of some sort and suddenly you wanted to hug everyone and celebrate a job well-done? Whatever you had disagreed about or fought over, whatever exhausted you about the work, was behind you and it was time to acknowledge your accomplishment.
Not only was the restoration finished, this was the time of harvest, another reason to gather together and rejoice. Even though they held the authority, it is neither Nehemiah nor Ezra who called the congregation to gather. Going back to the last verse of chapter 7, the text says, “So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel settled in their towns. When the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns—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.”
I love this. All the people, including the “singers,” were finally settled and what did they do? Did they shut their doors and go about their own business, concentrating on their success at the expense of the community, gloating over all they had accomplished with their own hands? They did not! Recognizing that all they had came from God, they gathered in a large public place and called on their high priest to read for them the ancient sacred text. Imagine the electricity of that event. There they were, as many as could crowd into the space. Like those filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, the Holy One moved among them, calling them to closer community, They immersed themselves in a word that gave them life and meaning.
“[M]en and women and all who could hear with understanding” gathered that day. What occurred surely qualifies as a spontaneous act of worship. “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 Holy One, 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.”
I know there have been times in our religious tradition when church has lasted all day, but can you imagine gathering here early on Sunday morning, demanding that I read the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, straight through so you could revel in their majesty and righteousness? If I just read the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or even one of them, for that matter, from beginning to end, would you sit through it or stand for it? Now, granted these were largely illiterate people. And even if they could read, they didn’t have libraries or pew Bibles or copy machines, so they didn’t have easy access to the formal word. Ezra read from long scrolls that his helpers on one side unrolled while his helpers on the other re-rolled.
And did they sit there, yawning or dozing, as Ezra droned on? No, they rose to their feet in love and respect for the holy word. And when they heard, they wept. Can you imagine, the whole crowd standing and weeping at the word of God? Why did they weep? Perhaps they were convicted of their sin. Perhaps they wept in remorse for the ways they had treated one another in the restoration project. Perhaps these were tears of relief at finally being home and settled. Perhaps they cried at the beauty and truth of their ancient law, proclaimed in their own land, before their holiest site. I’m sure many us have had some experience like that, moved to tears of conviction, remorse, relief or joy by the recitation or proclamation of words of beauty or truth that touched us deeply.
There they were all crowded into one place, hungry for the word of God. It reminds me of the old hymn, “Sing them over again to me, wonderful word of life. Let me more of their beauty see, wonderful words of life. Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty. Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life.” Though they probably didn’t sing this song that day, they might have. That was the spirit of the meeting. For them, these ancient words were full of life and beauty. They taught the blessings of faith and duty.
In the end, Nehemiah urged the crowd to cease their weeping and dry their tears. This was to be a day, a time, of joy and celebration. This day became Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a day to rejoice in the new thing that God is doing.
In her commentary, Anathea Poitier-Young, writes, Nehemiah says “Do not mourn…because this day when you have let God’s law fill your ears is a holy day. The day when God’s people gather together to hear the teaching of Moses can only be a day of drawing near to God in deepest joy: it is the joy of the Lord, the strength of the people (8:10).” Further, she says, “Like the people’s embodied expressions of humility, petition, and sorrow, this superabundant joy takes a concrete embodied form in an act of feasting that refuses to stay put…The feast of God’s efficacious, strengthening, joy-filled word exceeds all limit, reason, and expectation; it fills every need and defies all lack of planning.” Finally, “Nehemiah 8 shows us what it looks like when the people gather to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted and let that proclamation shape and energize their life in community (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-10, 1-24-2010,” workingpreacher.org). The word is out and it’s a living word.
So don’t hold back on celebrating. Don’t skimp on the meal. Nowadays we might balk at the fat and sugar, but the point is to break out the best, spare no expense, set the table with the good china and silver. This is a day to celebrate God’s goodness and redemptive spirit. Only the best will do. Oh, and by the way, “send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared.” In other words, this is day to share. No one should be left out; no one need be left behind. The word is out, working its wonders. Don’t hold back. There is plenty for all in God’s Beloved Community. Come, join the party. Amen.