Epiphany 3C Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 1 Cor 12:12-31a
Imagine that today, you came to this place to hear the Word of the Lord read aloud. Imagine that you came to this church to hear someone give voice to the words that are in the bible. Hopefully, that is not too hard to imagine!
Despite everything that may be wrong in your life, all the times you’ve been hurt, all the times you have hurt those you love, all the loss and pain, anger and resentment. Despite all the other things you have to do, the demands our busy lives place on us, the things you have to worry about. Despite all the things you want to do, all that is right in your life, the ways in which you feel lucky to have a roof, a good meal, good friends and family. Despite all of this or, perhaps, because of all this, you are here to hear the Word of God spoken aloud.
That is what is happening in our Old Testament lesson for today. The people—all the people—have gathered to hear the scriptures read. All the scriptures. We just heard small portions of what they would have heard on that day, but those people would have probably been in the town square listening for quite some time as Ezra and the other teachers and leaders present read and taught about Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Something quite interesting about this story is what has come just before this particular text.
The city of Jerusalem is in ruins. The walls have been burned completely to the ground. Almost all of the houses have been destroyed. Most of the Hebrew people have been exiled to another land entirely. The remainder—the remnant—is left in this burned out hull that was once a great city. Nehemiah rides through the city but it is so filled with rubble it is next to impossible for him to make it through. It sounds very much like images we might see in some post-apocalyptic movie where a city is in ruins and society has collapsed. But God has called Nehemiah to rebuild the city. And so he does but not alone. He does so with all the people. The first few chapters of this book deal with the rebuilding of the city, listing many people by name and what they and their families worked to restore and rebuild. Remarkably, even the daughters helped in the labor. Despite many obstacles and threats from enemies both foreign and domestic, much work is accomplished. And now, on this day, as they have completed much of the work, they gather together into the square and tell Ezra to bring out the book of the law of Moses and read it to them.
This is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted. So what happens?
Well, several things. People bless God and voice to their faith and trust in God. They lift up their hands and they stand while the text is read. Some fall to the ground in humility, knowing that God alone can lift them up. When they hear the written word read aloud and taught, much like we have in a Sunday worship service or even in Sunday school, the people also weep and mourn. They do this because they hear their own sins spoken out loud and they know they, just like all of us, are not as blameless in the world as we would like to think we are, but they and we are guilty of sin and of not being the people of God in the ways they could be. The people weep because they fear death and the justice of a God who does not flippantly pardon the guilty. The people weep because they do not know how to bridge the enormous gap that separates a broken humanity from the faithful God who made them. But as surely as the scriptures reveal to us all our shortcomings and failings, it also shows us the source of hope: our God who keeps his promises. It shows us the God who bridged that enormous gap by making a covenant with Abraham, who heard the cry of the people of God enslaved in Egypt and delivered them to the promised land, who forgives sins not because he has to or because we are worthy but because he loves us. Because he is God. The God who promised to come to us, has come to us and will continue to come to us to bridge that gap between us and him that we cannot bridge ourselves.
Then every person who leads and teaches this group of people, whether they are governor, priest, or scribe, tells the people not to weep. Do not mourn, they say, because this day when you hear these words of God is a holy day. A day for joy and celebration! It is the joy of the Lord, the God who is the strength of the people. God is not their undoing but their salvation. This call to rejoice is the big ‘aha’ of this passage. The scripture isn’t being read in order to simply condemn and make people feel how unworthy they are or how distant they are from God. Quite the opposite!
This joy is so excessive that it is possible for us to miss the full meaning of it. The phrase “the joy of the Lord” can mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart. It can also mean the people’s joy in God but, most of all, it is a joy that comes only from God. In response to this joy, the people are told to go and eat and not just any food, but really good food, and to drink sweet and therefore fine wine. All this goodness is overflowing since they are told to share with anyone who has nothing. Share all this richness with everyone. This feast, like God’s grace-filled joyous word, exceeds all limitation or expectation. Like God, this feast fills every need and leaves no one out!
This texts shows us what it looks like when the people gather around to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted and then let that experience shape and give life to their entire community. The truth is, the biblical text does nothing in and of itself and nothing by itself. When Ezra lifts up the scroll and opens it for all the people to see, they stand in reverence before this sacred text that proclaims God’s word just as we do today when the Gospel is read. But it is not the scroll they revere any more than it is this book of paper we read from. We do not revere it as though it were a god. It is the gracious God revealed in the texts that they and we worship.
One of the interesting things that is left out of our reading today in verses 4 and 7 are the list of the names of those who are present helping to interpret these words of scripture. Those names are important reminders to us of what proclaiming the Word of God is all about and the truth that the proclaiming of God’s word is something shared by all. Even though every person there does not read from the text or teach, it is all of the people who first ask Ezra to bring the scroll to them and read from it. Over and over the text uses the phrase “all the people”. Each person there has a place in the proclamation of the Word of God. Each one of us has a part in this proclamation of the Word of God. Everyone, each of them and each of us, is also called to celebrate the Joy of the Lord.
Our second reading for today talks about how each of us has a part to play. Paul uses the analogy of a body and how all the parts work together to make a whole, healthy human. The hand, foot, eye, ear, all the parts and pieces are not whole and complete by themselves but require each other. So, too, it is with us. We require one another to be whole. Apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, ones who do deeds of power, assisting, leadership, speaking. Ushers, altar carers, flower providers, scripture readers, cooks, dish and tablecloth washers, writers, financial managers, visionaries, teachers, preachers, candle lighters. You get the point. We need everyone, whether extraverts or introverts, leaders or followers, speakers or listeners, doers or thinkers, all have a part. In a manner of speaking, we require one another to understand the Word of God and we certainly need EVERYONE to be the body of Christ.
Imagine that today, you came to this place to hear the Word of the Lord read aloud. Imagine that you came to this church to hear someone give voice to the words that are in the bible. Hopefully, this isn’t too hard to imagine because just as it took all the people to rebuild the city, all the people to proclaim, teach and hear the word of God, it takes all of us here to make this church.
We are at an exciting time in the life of this congregational family. We are rebuilding things—both literally and figuratively. Slowly and surely we are growing—in our knowledge of God, our ministries and in how we share the Word of God with one another and beyond these walls as well. We are reminded of the ways in which we have fallen short and of all the ways God never falls short. Most of all, this day we are reminded of the Joy of our God—our God who helps us rebuild, who brings us together to be the Body of Christ. So this day, when we have heard God’s word, when we have, together, proclaimed the word of God, is a holy day. A day for joy and celebration!