Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1All the people [of Israel] 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. 2Accordingly, 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. 3He 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. 5And 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. 6Then 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. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9And 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. 10Then 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.”
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the LORD Jesus Christ!
I know for many of us, reading Scripture can be like yadda...yadda...yadda. But this text, and the entire 8th Chapter of Nehemiah, is without question, my most favorite piece of Scripture in all the bible, hands down. It tells the story of the beginning of the restoration of Israel, which had been divided into northern and southern kingdoms for generations, and the word of God was "absent" from them. Generations of Jewish folks grew up not having heard the word of God (sound familiar, north America?) because of Israel's desire to get into politics, elected leaders, kings and judges, and others who would disappoint them, and worse. The 12 tribes of Israel had been lost to politics, and in the process, Israel became a divided nation, and they forgot their God (although God had not forgotten them.)
And so, in this little pericope for Sunday, we hear in part, the beginning of the Word of the Lord being reintroduced to Israel, through the priest Ezra, and the governor, Nehemiah. Together, they stood before all the people assembled, as Ezra unrolls the Torah scroll, and begins reading from it. Water flowing down into the parched desert. Music to the ears of Israel. However you choose to describe it, the Word of the LORD was again upon them. And they were so starved for this word, they stood and listened, all of them, men and women and all who could hear, for hours on end. And at the conclusion of the reading by Ezra, how does Israel react? Together, they said, "Amen, Amen!" In other words, "thanks be to God" for this blessing of God's word being proclaimed again!
This reading from Nehemiah provides a strong theme of unity with the repeated phrase “all the people.” All the people gathered together. All the people listened attentively. All the people stood up. All the people answered, “Amen, Amen.” Ezra, the priest, proclaims God’s word in the public square and offers radical inclusion: “Both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” (8:2), which likely included children, were in attendance. We witness a beleaguered remnant, returning from exile and experiencing generational grief. The people were united in happiness and even in tears. Ezra gave them permission to rejoice and to celebrate, inviting the people to embrace subversive joy—that is, joy in the midst of tragedy. He encouraged them with the words “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
My message tomorrow will focus on this reading, and how the faith of Israel is restored upon the reading and hearing of this beautiful text. Epiphany is in our rear view mirror now, but we still are remembering that in Jesus Christ, God becomes fully revealed for us then and now. I invite you to pull out your bible, dust it off if you haven't dug into it in a while, and find Nehemiah. Read Chapter 8. It is amazing, and this story is as well. Thanks be to God.